What is believed to be Maine’s first marijuana convenience store, one of only a handful in operation in the country, will open Thursday in Portland.

At 10 a.m., Atlantic Farms Gas N’ Grass will start selling cannabis-infused gummies, tinctures and smokable marijuana to those fueling up at the former Getty Mart at 460 Warren Ave. on the first day that Maine’s new, sweeping medical marijuana law takes effect. The reforms passed by lawmakers over a gubernatorial veto in July changed a host of standards for growing and selling medical marijuana.

At Gas N’ Grass, adults with a medical card and government-issued identification will be able to buy marijuana products from a renovated walk-in cooler inside the convenience store, with different strains of cannabis selling for $5 to $15 a gram and concentrates selling for $20 to $40 a gram. Anyone can buy the non-intoxicating hemp products, traditional convenience store soda and snacks, and, of course, the self-serve, pay-at-the-pump gas.

Jackson McLeod of Portland, a caregiver and the public face of the four-person partnership behind Gas N’ Grass, hopes to educate those who gas up at the Warren Avenue location about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and hemp.

The station gets about 250 gas customers a day. It was selling regular unleaded for $2.29 a gallon Wednesday, making it one of Portland’s cheapest fill-ups. McLeod believes the setting will take a lot of the stigma and hassle out of buying cannabis.

“We offer a rotating menu of the best cannabis products from the best caregivers in Maine with the convenience of, well, a convenience store,” he said.

McLeod, a former lettuce farmer, likens the business model to a farmers market for cannabis, where consumers can easily browse products from a range of local caregivers at different price ranges. He plans to make the most of the part of the new law that allows a caregiver to buy some products from other caregivers, giving customers a diversity of offerings in a one-stop shopping experience and caregivers the chance to develop a following of their own.

The idea of the Gas N’ Grass was born about six months ago as Maine lawmakers debated the merits of reforming the medical cannabis law to give caregivers like McLeod the freedom to grow their businesses. Under the new law, caregivers can do things such as hire more than one employee and open medical marijuana shops, something many already had been doing without the explicit blessing of the state.

DEALING WITH LOCAL LAWS

The law makes sweeping changes to Maine’s 19-year-old medical cannabis program. It allows patients to get a medical card if a doctor deems cannabis medically beneficial instead of having to prove they have a state-sanctioned qualifying condition such as chronic pain, cancer or Crohn’s disease. It will grant six new medical dispensary licenses, giving Maine a total of 14. And it gives the state new authority to inspect caregiver operations.

But the new law requires a caregiver to get local approval before opening a store. McLeod and his partners, who were watching the state medical law as it progressed, lined up their local permits as soon as the ink on the state law dried. They got a renovation permit to turn a walk-in cooler into a marijuana shopping area, a food service license and, perhaps most important, a certificate of occupancy.

And they did it all before the city adopted a moratorium on new retail cannabis businesses in October. City staff asked the City Council for enough time to craft a cannabis zoning map and sort out local licensing conditions before the state medical law went into effect and the state adult-use cannabis market goes live sometime next year. McLeod and his partners were one of eight cannabis businesses to get permits before the moratorium.

It is unclear what Maine’s Department of Administrative and Financial Services, the state agency that recently took over management of the medical program, will do about caregiver shops that operate without explicit municipal approval now that the new law is in place. It will be up to a host community to report to the state a store that is operating without local approval, spokesman David Heidrich said.

Going forward, caregivers will be asked whether they are in violation of local codes and regulations when they seek to obtain or renew their state license. If Administrative and Financial Services finds out that a caregiver has lied about being in compliance with local codes, the state will take enforcement-related action, although Heidrich did not specify a penalty. A medical marijuana violation could affect a caregiver’s ability to obtain a recreational license in the future.

SUITED FOR SELLING CANNABIS

Although state lawmakers have focused on the dangers of mixing cannabis and driving, banning social clubs out of fear that they could lead to a spike in impaired driving, Portland city officials don’t see any unique concerns with the gas and cannabis combination. Although state law doesn’t require it, McLeod said he and his partners will attach a sticker with a “don’t use this and drive” message to all cannabis products they sell because of their specific business model.

Like any medical marijuana business, Gas N’ Grass will prohibit on-site consumption of cannabis products and will have cameras monitoring the parking lot.

While more and more gas stations are beginning to sell hemp products, which by law contain less than 1 percent of the cannabis compound that gets people high, there are only a handful of other convenience stores in the United States that sell gas and marijuana, said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores. The most famous is Native Roots, which has two Gas & Grass locations in Colorado.

In some ways, convenience stores are ideally suited to selling cannabis, Lenard said. The industry is accustomed to verifying identification for age-restricted products such as alcohol and tobacco – 4.5 million age verifications a day, he said – and embraces high-security measures that could work well to discourage robberies in a cash-only market like marijuana.

The association even held a seminar on how members could capitalize on marijuana at its October trade show, Lenard said. However, the panel discussion focused on the sale of accessories, hemp-related products and cannabis-adjacent categories, not the outright sale of recreational marijuana itself, which remains illegal under federal law and could put a store owner’s whole business at risk if federal authorities decide to crack down.

“It’s not the first, but what Portland is doing is way out in front,” Lenard said. “Given how fast states are legalizing marijuana, though, more are definitely coming.”

 

Jackson McLeod, co-owner of Atlantic Farms Gas N’ Grass, a medical marijuana dispensary on Warren Avenue in Portland, says “we offer a rotating menu of the best cannabis products from the best caregivers in Maine.” (Portland Press Herald  photo by Derek Davis)

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