Marijuana storefronts: Coming to a corner near you?

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AUBURN — John Morrison opened Port City Relief in a former gun shop in April, two doors down from the Rollodrome.

The interior is sleek black and gray, with a tall cafe table in one corner and two long cases filled with glass containers neatly labeled with offbeat names such as Oil Spill and Mimosa #14.

Morrison and his son own one of just two shops licensed to sell medical marijuana in Auburn. They plan to open a second one in Lewiston, above Pedro O’Hara’s on Main Street, in time for the holidays — and in time for the rush.

“When we opened up and started growing, I was nervous as a cat, it hadn’t really sunk in that this is legit,” Morrison said. “When recreational (marijuana) comes, (sales) will be 50-fold more, at least.”

People already come in to Port City every day looking to buy.

The state’s medical marijuana rules are getting an overhaul next month amid a sudden flood of retail medical marijuana shops opening. 

Meanwhile, retail sales of recreational marijuana, which is legal in Maine, are effectively on hold, waiting, and waiting, on new state rules.

Changes are coming as the industry continues to take shape in Maine.

In Lewiston-Auburn, there could be as many as 14 marijuana storefronts in the not-too-distant future, or there could be a whole lot more.

‘THIS COULD BE DANGEROUS’

Catherine Lewis, board chairwoman of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine trade association and a medical marijuana storefront owner in Winthrop, said the Legislature passed LD 1539 last July to tighten up gray areas in medical marijuana law.

Starting Dec. 13, licensed caregiver growers can hire more employees, doctors can recommend medical marijuana without referencing a specific list of ailments, growers can sell to each other for the first time if a crop goes belly up, and communities such as the Twin Cities have to actively decide whether they want more medical marijuana storefronts, where and how many.

Current law doesn’t address storefronts. It’s set up so caregivers can grow up to six plants each for five patients, plus themselves. The rule was meant to limit the size of medical marijuana operations.

But today’s storefronts operate under a rotational loophole in the law: Instead of a long-term arrangement that might have been initially envisioned — a grower supplies medical marijuana to five specific customers long-term — many suppliers are now treating one of those five slots as temporary, constantly rotating another customer into that slot so they can claim they never have more than five active patients at any one time.

“A few brave caregivers took the leap (about five years ago),” Lewis said. “The rest of us were like, ‘Oh, no, what are they doing?’ But in researching the law, there was nothing that prohibited it, and it made complete sense.”

State Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, helped write the new bill.

“Whole businesses grew up in loopholes,” he said. “They’re simply responding to the demand of the market: There are a lot of people with medical conditions who benefit from medical cannabis and there’s been a lot of demand, more than just eight dispensaries (established by the original law) could serve.”

Before they started setting up storefronts, growers often met patients in parking lots, Lewis said, which felt awkward and uncomfortable.

The one time she went to a new patient’s home alone, he lived remotely and got a little too close and sounded a little too aggressive when he brought up illegal activity and she shut him down.

“It put me in that mind frame, ‘OK, this could be dangerous,'” Lewis said. “Anybody can get a patient care card, there’s no background check on that. I made my excuses and left.”

The state has 2,552 registered caregiver growers like Lewis, according to David Heidrich, spokesman for the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

Given the way the current law is interpreted, any one of those 2,552 people could open a shop.

The state doesn’t keep track of how many of those caregivers have.

“I know that there’s four on a two-mile stretch of road between Winthrop and Augusta,” she said. “We’ve had two open up in the last six months.”

Some percentage of growers — Lewis believes it’s small — are opening medical marijuana storefronts now in the hopes of flipping the operation to recreational sales once that’s live.

Alarmed by the numbers, cities such as Lewiston and Auburn, as well as many smaller communities, hit the brakes this summer with moratoriums.

Now, what’s next?

‘OUR NO. 1 TOPIC’

Before Lewiston decided on July 11 to enact a moratorium on medical marijuana storefronts, the city had approved seven locations, according to City Hall.

In the two-day window before the six-month moratorium started, growers with five more locations applied.

“We have some that we were feeling like they were placeholders, they just wanted to get their foot in the door,” City Planner Doug Greene said. “They were lined up, it was pretty crazy.”

As of last week, six were open for business, six pending. Greene declined to provide a list of those businesses’ names and addresses, saying the city needed a legal opinion on whether those were public first.

Behind that rush to get a license before the moratorium: Starting Dec. 13, municipalities have to opt in to allow medical marijuana storefronts, marijuana dispensaries, labs or processing.

Only ones already approved and operating by Dec. 12 are grandfathered.

If Lewiston sits back and does not opt in, no one else can come in.

“The fact that they started showing up came as somewhat of a surprise to us given our initial understanding that five (patients) meant five (patients),” said Ed Barrett, Lewiston’s city administrator. “I’m sure for some people they will look at this (and say), ‘Do we want to attract this to the community and what’s the impact of having these kinds of operations?’

“Others will say, ‘Hey, we’re open for business and this is an investment in the community and we ought to be open to it,’ and that may also vary by type of operation,” Barrett said.

“Would people object to a testing lab that’s got a lot of highly qualified people and expensive equipment? I don’t know. That’s quite different from living next to somebody who’s got 10 acres of marijuana growing in his backyard,” he said.

The council this week held the first of a series of workshops starting to flesh out a stance.

Councilors so far seem split, and Mayor Shane Bouchard said he was a “big no” — opting-in would create more work and bring no economic benefit, he said.

Lewiston Police Chief Brian O’Malley, whom Barrett introduced during the workshop as the city’s “designated naysayer,” said police have been getting more calls complaining of odor or individuals “overdosing” on edibles.

O’Malley recently toured a number of storefronts, which he said showed varying degrees of professionalism. Legal Peaces often features an employee dancing outside in a joint costume at its Lisbon Street location at the city’s gateway.

“We need to think as a city to what we want to be known as,” he said.

In Auburn, a working group of residents and property owners has met since winter to draft medical and recreational recommendations.

“The council has said that they think there’s room for this as a potential business, but they want to be thoughtful and careful about where and how many,” said Eric Cousens, deputy director of Economic and Community Development.

That city passed a six-month moratorium in June retroactive to May 31. 

Only Port City Relief and Fire Pharms on Center Street can operate medical marijuana storefronts in Auburn, and only Fire Pharms has the license for edibles, Cousens said.

The city is aware of four other retailers, named in a memo to the council in June, that Cousens suspects are also selling, but the city hasn’t cracked down. Yet.

“It’s more because the rules have been unclear, and they’re going to get clearer in December,” he said.

Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said roughly 20 communities have imposed moratoriums or have already taken steps to regulate marijuana sales.

“It’s our No. 1 topic legally here,” he said.

Lewis, with Medical Marijuana Caregivers, is concerned that few towns will open their doors to storefronts come December.

Scott Gagnon, Maine coordinator for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said his group has fielded calls asking about information and presentations as towns grapple with the issue.

He worries about the public health consequences come December of eliminating the list of conditions from which a person must exhibit at least one of the conditions before a doctor can recommend medical marijuana.

“Frankly, we don’t have a mountain of evidence for the conditions that were on the list, of whether or not (marijuana) was effective,” Gagnon said. “It kind of takes (away) the one, albeit, weak scientific check that we had on (marijuana) being recommended appropriately.”

He said the state’s “slow and deliberate process” toward rules for recreational marijuana sales “can only be good for Maine.” (See related story.)

‘HEY, YOU SMELL LIKE WEED …’

Before opening Port City Relief on Riverside Drive, Morrison started out growing marijuana in a tent in his basement. His son, John Morrison III, had nausea and digestive issues.

“He got his medical (marijuana) card,” Morrison said. “Being Mainers, we decided we would do it ourselves. He felt as though we could grow better.”

A few years in, Morrison, who owns construction and weatherization companies, thought there could be a business in it.

The shop sees about 100 customers a week, 85 percent returnees. Some are after cannabidiol oil, or CBD, and products that don’t require a patient card.

“They usually tell me, ‘I’m feeling XYZ, what would you recommend?'” said Alexis Williamson, his employee behind the counter. “A lot of it is pain related: back pain, neck pain, pain from cancer, arthritis, anything.”

The average customer is in their 40s to 60s and buys three to four days’ worth of product. Some say they’re trying to avoid using opioids. Many comment that they’re in the shop as a last resort.

Morrison said he’s had calls and conversations with city officials, but no visits by police or health inspectors.

“I know everyone in town pretty much and no one’s come up to me, ‘Hey, you suck, man, you’re growing marijuana,'” Morrison said. “Usually it’s, ‘Hey, you smell like weed, have you been in your shop?'”

He foresees Lewiston, Auburn and Portland becoming marijuana shopping hubs and scoffed at newcomers entering the market now because they see dollar signs.

“People think they’re going to be a millionaire; they watch too much stuff on TV,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. There’s all sorts of pitfalls when you’re a grower: There’s disease and bugs and mold. You have to have the proper nutrients. People think they’re going to buy a bunch of clones and put them under lights.”

Williamson, who moved to the state over the summer, saw an episode of MTV’s reality series “True Life” when she was 15. (“True Life: I’m in the Marijuana Business.”) That cemented her interest.

She tells customers coming in for recreational sales to check back in June 2019 at the earliest, maybe even 2020.

“I think a lot of people are looking to Maine to know what’s next,” she said. “Maine bud is just so much better.”

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Staff writer Andrew Rice contributed to this report.

John Morrison left, and his son, not photographed, own Port City Relief in Auburn and will be opening a store in Lewiston soon. In the background is one of their employees, Alexis Williamson. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Alexis Williamson sniffs one of the new strains of “flower” called Mimosa at Port City Relief in Auburn where she works. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

One of the new strains of “flower” called Mimosa at Port City Relief in Auburn. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

State regs on storefront pot sales slowly smolder

Two years ago this week, Maine voters narrowly approved a referendum question legalizing recreational marijuana use in Maine.

When stores will be allowed to open and sell it, however, is still a question.

“At this point it seems more political than anything else,” said Scott Gagnon, Maine coordinator for Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “The state vote was really close between yes and no, and you see that reflected in the State House, you see that reflected in communities. What’s the best way to move forward? Should we move forward?”

The state Department of Administrative and Financial Services is looking for a consultant to write the rules around the adult use retail rollout, with a deadline of April 30. The department won’t start to look at the bidders for that consulting job until next month.

Patricia Heer, a lawyer and co-founder of Cannabis Law Digest, said as states craft rules around recreational sales, they’re paying attention to what’s worked in other states and mindful of being examples in the future. The slow pace to her makes sense.

A lot of voices want to be involved, she said, “so everyone feels like they’ve been part of the process, so there’s not a questioning later on it. (For instance): ‘These issues really need addressing,’ ‘What are they going to say about what we did?'”

State Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said the rules are going to be in the hands of the state’s next governor to “do the work of implementing that and getting things up and going.”

“I’m hopeful that communities see this as an opportunity to bring in more business and job opportunity,” he said.

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