Maine has announced its first round of fully licensed recreational marijuana businesses, including two retail stores that can start selling adult-use cannabis to the public next month in South Portland and Northport.
The two retailers, Theory Wellness of Maine in South Portland and Sweet Relief Shop in Northport, are cleared to open on Oct. 9, the date Maine has chosen as opening day for adult-use sales. In addition, the state Office of Marijuana Policy approved Nelson Analytics in Kennebunk as Maine’s first testing lab and grows for Room 5 in Detroit, Gele in South Portland and Grass Roots Marijuana in Auburn.
Those are unlikely to be the only businesses licensed by opening day – the state plans to continue licensing adult-use applications on a rolling basis up to and after Oct. 9, including those seeking to manufacture marijuana products including the infused marijuana edibles popular among modern consumers. No manufacturing licenses were among those announced Tuesday.
All grows and labs licensed Tuesday will be off limits to anyone but state-licensed employees, regulators and vendors, but inside, away from public scrutiny, these license holders will begin grow and test the marijuana that will stock the shelves of retail stores. But the state warned Tuesday that market launch and product availability may be limited during a pandemic-era market launch.
“Maine will have the unique distinction of being the only state to launch its adult-use marijuana program during a pandemic,” said Erik Gundersen, head of the state’s marijuana policy office, in a prepared statement Tuesday. “Our highest priority remains the well-being of this new industry’s employees and consumers.”
Theory Wellness of Maine, a business run by two Colby College graduates who are already selling medical and adult use cannabis in Massachusetts, plans to grow and eventually manufacture cannabis products in a former machine shop in Waterville and sell it out of a former Dress Barn near The Maine Mall in South Portland, and one day soon, near their alma mater.
“There is a lot of excitement within the company, as we have been working on this project for almost two years now,” said Theory spokesman Thomas Winstanley. “Cannabis can be a ‘hurry-up-and-wait’ situation, so we’re really excited to moving forward with certainty.”
The former college roommates are not Mainers, but they say they fell in love with the state in college, where they launched their first business together, a water filtration company, and lived for two years in Portland upon graduation. They had always hoped they would be able to return to Maine to be a part of its long marijuana tradition.
The other retail license went to Sweet Relief Shop in Northport, owned and operated by John Lorenz, one of about two dozen who have been growing and selling medical marijuana out of shops along Maine’s 500-mile-long stretch of Route 1. Lorenz will run a medical and recreational grow, bakery and sales operation out of separate buildings on his property.
A medical marijuana caregiver since 2015, Lorenz has lived in Maine since he was 8 years old, and started plotting his career in adult-use marijuana since the year before, even before the legalization referendum. So far, the medical business comprises just him and his wife, but he hopes he can expand enough to hire employees once his adult-use business is up and running.
“I have wanted to be a farmer since I was a small child,” Lorenz said. “Now, with state licensing, the opportunity has become a reality… I have been told that this is the only application for a marijuana store that is a sole proprietorship, and that also did not use a corporate lawyer to do all of the paperwork. I did all of it myself. Success is when opportunity meets preparation.”
The industry has been eagerly awaiting the state’s announcement of first-wave licenses, but most consumers just want to know how far they will have to drive to buy legal recreational marijuana on opening day. Tuesday’s announcement means Mainers who live on Maine’s northernmost border will have to drive about four hours to the nearest legal recreational marijuana store.
Consumers will have to show a government-issued ID to prove they are 21 years old to even enter a shop, much less buy cannabis. Daily purchases are limited to no more than 2 ½ ounces of dry-leaf marijuana, or 5 grams of concentrate. Edibles can’t exceed 100 total milligrams of THC, the chemical that gets a user high; single edible servings are capped at 10 milligrams each.
State law allows retail shops to operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., but host towns can opt to adopt more restrictive operating limits.
Maine legalized adult-use marijuana via referendum in November 2016, along with California, Massachusetts and Nevada. The other states have long since opened their markets, while Maine will have spent 1,431 days rewriting the citizen referendum law, crafting regulations, dodging political delays and outwaiting a pandemic, assuming the Oct. 9 launch goes as planned.
Of those states that allow adult-use marijuana sales, the average wait between approval and market opening was 435 days.
That has left a lot of money on the table for Maine, both in sales and tax dollars. State officials predict $168 million in adult-use sales in the first full year of the market, which would generate at least $33 million in state tax revenue at an effective 20 percent tax rate, but private research firms say that number will be higher, and create an estimated 6,100 new industry jobs, too.
It’s unclear how much of that money, or how many of the jobs, will be coming from losses suffered by Maine’s medical cannabis industry, which last year generated an estimated $111 million in sales, making it one of Maine’s biggest industries, according to state tax records. In other states, recreational markets have hurt medical cannabis sales.
To open a recreational marijuana business in Maine, an applicant must have completed three licensing phases: an initial state conditional license, where an applicant’s finances and experience is reviewed; authorization from a host community; and final active state licensing, where an applicant’s operational and security plans are approved.
For many, local permitting is the most challenging phase, requiring a community to opt into the marijuana industry as well as sign off on the usual zoning approvals. Unlike in Massachusetts, for example, communities that host a marijuana business do not receive any direct stipends from the business, nor a cut of any sales taxes generated by the business.
Fifty-two of Maine’s 430 towns and 23 cities have opted to allow some kind of adult-use business to open within their borders, from as far north as Grand Isle to as far south as Eliot. Each town could decide what kind of recreational business was welcome. Camden will only allow grows, and Kennebunk only labs. Fryeburg won’t allow retail, while Newry said no to all but retail.
This story will be updated.