Up in the Air
With recreational cannabis legal in Maine and products likely hitting shelves within a year, a new crop of entrepreneurs and business owners are eager to get their Maine-grown products to market.
The first thing that hit me was the smell. I didn’t notice it when standing outside the industrial doors, but as soon as I walked into the gray hallway, I was enveloped in an earthy yet soft fragrance, like lavender and pine and marsh and fresh skunk all mixed together. It smelled nothing like smoke–it was fresh and wild, pleasant.
Twenty years ago, the only way you would come across this smell was if you stumbled upon a garden in the woods, or if you happened to know someone bold enough to grow cannabis indoors, despite the letter of the law. These days, it’s becoming increasingly possible for Maine citizens to see whole, leafy, healthy cannabis plants much like these ones at the Meowy Jane garden in southern Maine. After a series of votes, first legalizing medical marijuana (1999), then creating the distribution system for medical marijuana (2009), adult use of recreational marijuana was finally legalized in 2016. Now there are cannabis farms scattered throughout the state, and medical stores and caretaker businesses have been open in some municipalities for years. By sometime next year, you should be able to walk into a dispensary and buy cannabis products, from flowers to sodas to shatter (a type of extract), straight off the shelf. (Provided that you’re of legal age. Provided that the shop is properly licensed. And provided that the grower tracks every stage of growth of every single plant and documents it, from seed to flower to disposal.)
Noelle Albert, co-owner of the medical marijuana caregiver company Meowy Jane, has been planning her Old Port cannabis boutique for years. With her long dark hair and botanical tattoos, she’s the epitome of a modern millennial farmer. Noelle has become something of a minor celebrity in the cannabis world, thanks to her Instagram presence and social-media savvy. Alongside her husband, Joe, she grows, harvests, processes, and distributes cannabis products to patients. Since 2016, Noelle has been planning her own boutique, where she can sell adult use marijuana products alongside other objects that she loves, including “cannabis cookbooks, cat-shaped pipes, pretty jewelry, and clothing.” She wants her store to feel feminine and bright. “For a woman, the industry feels a bit unapproachable,” she explains. “In the past, I was uncomfortable going into spaces and talking about [cannabis]. Even me, who was knowledgeable, didn’t feel welcomed in.” Her vision is to expand her whimsical, feline inspired brand into a brick-and-mortar store that serves locals and tourists.
It sounds wholesome. A young married couple with a baby on the way living in small-town Maine and growing a local business from the ground up. The Alberts are small-time farmers who are making it work in an economy that is increasingly hostile to land-based businesses. And yet, they can’t quite shake the stink. Even though they are providing medicine and planning to open a cute little cat-themed shop, the whiff of stigma still clings to all their plans, all their work.
Marijuana may be legal in Maine and other states, but it remains illegal on a federal level. According to the ACLU, over half of all drug arrests are for marijuana. Furthermore, drug laws are enforced inconsistently; a black person who uses marijuana is over three times more likely to be arrested than a white person who uses marijuana. The ripple effects of these national issues can’t be ignored by even the smallest of small-time farmers.
“Cannabis is so stigmatized,” says Joe. “People don’t want to be associated with it.” Over the years, they’ve become more open about what they do, but both Alberts have lied about their business in the past, sometimes to family members, sometimes to new acquaintances. Growing up in a religious household, Noelle admits she “thought weed was the devil.” She says, “I was told that forever. It’s what a lot of people think.”
Patricia Rosi is the CEO of Maine Wellness Connection, and while that company is much larger and more established than Meowy Jane, Rosi, too, has felt the sting of public judgment. “We started in 2011, so while the industry is still new, we are not,” she says. “If I were growing strawberries, no one would care, but there is a stigma around this crop.” Wellness Connection is the largest cannabis company in Maine and holds four of the eight dispensary licenses that have been issued in the state. It is backed by Acreage Holdings, one of largest cannabis companies in the U.S. (Acreage is also publicly traded on the Canadian market.) While Meowy Jane is a four- to six-person operation, Wellness Connection employs over 80 people in Maine. The company operates a 40,000-square-foot cultivation and production facility, produces baked goods daily at a commercial kitchen in Gardiner, and offers a wide range of products at dispensaries located in Portland, Bath, Brewer, and Gardiner. According to the company’s estimates, Wellness Connection serves over 10,000 patients (up from 200 in 2011).
Rosi has been named a “Woman to Watch” by Mainebiz and one of the “Most Important Women” by Cannabis Business Executive. She presents as a successful businessperson–because that’s what she is. And yet, she says, “sometimes, I’ll go to a networking event and someone will ask what I do.” When she tells them the truth—“I operate a medical marijuana company”—she’ll get the reply, “Oh, so you’re one of those people.”
While this kind of interaction would make me wildly uncomfortable, Rosi says this is a huge improvement. “It used to be that, at social networking events, I would tell people what I do and they would turn mid-sentence and walk away to the farthest corner of the room,” she laughs. “I guess that’s progress.”
Right now, there isn’t a single recreational marijuana company open and operating in Maine. Up until 2016, only doctor-prescribed cannabis was legal under state law. Since the 2016 vote, you can possess and use cannabis products for fun, but you can’t sell them or buy them. That should change in 2020, says Erik Gundersen of the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy (OMP). “Our goal is to start accepting applications for licenses in 2019,” he says. The OMP is working as quickly as possible to “put forward the best rules and regulations we can. We have to think about licensing, packaging, dealing with waste, enforcement, taxation.” Every single plant, Gundersen says, will be monitored from “seed to sale.” It’s a daunting task, and the rollout of recreational marijuana will be watched closely by both those who oppose legalization and those who have even a little skin in the game. Yet other states have done it. Maine can, too.
It seems to be only a matter of time until boutiques pop up in the Old Port and recreational dispensaries open in ski towns and small towns across the state. In anticipation of this emerging market, medical marijuana companies have been planning how they can expand their operations or shift their focus to welcome in the new clientele.
The hope is that consumers will receive these early forays into adult-use similarly to how they embraced Maine craft beer. A few decades ago, Maine was known for lobster, sailing, and mountains. Now, tourists come to Maine to go on beer tours of Portland and to visit farmhouse and cabin breweries located in out-of-the-way places like Newcastle and Limerick. Many in the cannabis industry believe that their market will develop along this model—with well-informed customers seeking out high-quality, specialized products created by small, locally owned businesses.
At JAR Cannabis Company in Windham, I get a glimpse of this best-case-scenario future. JAR currently has a medical marijuana storefront that also sells (legal) CBD-infused products to walk-ins. Owners Joel Pepin and Ryan Roy want to change this store into an adult-use facility, but they have to wait and see whether Windham opts in. “The municipalities are the gatekeepers if you want to switch over,” explains Pepin. The decision is up to the town council. Pepin, who is on a pro-adult-use task force with other local businesses, says they still have “several months of work to go” before they’ll know anything.
Townspeople are worried about all sorts of issues, from the smell of marijuana wafting into the parking lot to the presence of loiterers outside the store to the possibility that adult-use products will find their way onto the black market or, worse, into the hands of teenagers. Matt Hawes, founder of Seaworthy cannabis company and founding board member (along with Nick Messer of Port City Relief and Pepin) of the Maine Cannabis Industry Association, says the responsibility is “holistic” and that it’s important for companies to consider “how to be a good neighbor in their communities.” He adds, “Our responsibility starts when you plant a seed and ends when a consumer locks it in a lockbox in their closet because they have a teenager at home.” (As a stepfather to a teenager, Hawes feels this responsibility particularly acutely. “I’m not OK with her thinking that marijuana is harmless,” he says.)
When it comes to keeping cannabis away from schools and other high-risk areas, municipalities have a lot of influence. If they don’t take any action, recreational marijuana businesses won’t be allowed to open. They can also opt-in and create regulations that address the needs of each specific area. Everyone has to abide by state law, but towns that opt in can also institute performance standards, licensing fees, odor ordinances, zoning laws, and annual license renewals dependent on a “good neighbor clause,” something Pepin supports in Windham. “If we’re not operating responsibly, the town should have the ability to pull our license,” he says.
Of course, it would greatly benefit Pepin to have Windham opt in, considering that he’s already invested a significant amount of resources in this region. Since January 2019, Pepin has operated his medical marijuana retail location. Located in a strip mall off Route 302, JAR is, from the outside, rather nondescript. Once you walk in, you’re surrounded on all sides by warm-toned wood paneling and the faint scent of lumber. The product is kept in its packaging and behind glass. The display cases remind me of a jewelry store, though the rustic live-edge trim lends a certain masculine, woodsy feel to the shop (as do the leather chairs in the seating area and the kayak-themed artwork that adorns the walls). “We wanted it to feel like a ski house or lake cabin,” says Pepin. “We worked with a designer who understood our brand, vision, and values.” He wanted this retail space to feel outdoorsy and familiar— wholesome, authentic, Maine.
During my visit to JAR, I watch as several customers come in, complete their purchases, and leave. Every transaction is quiet and respectful, and half of the customers I observe have white or gray hair. Right now, it’s the shoulder season, so I imagine we’re seeing mostly Maine residents coming by for their weekly or monthly purchase. Pepin says their customer demographic is “all over the board.” When pressed, he says that the average JAR customer is “probably a blue-collar worker, in their 30s or 40s, who comes in after working construction.” He adds, “They’re coming to ease their aches and pains.” What Pepin and his crew want to see is familiar faces, regulars who trust JAR and count on their products. “We’re trying to build long-term relationships, so we give discounts for returning,” he explains. “Our prices are tailored toward repeat customers.”
The THC, the active (psychotropic) compound in cannabis, can be delivered in a number of ways (through vaporizer cartridges, edibles, tinctures, and topical applications), once it’s extracted from the plant. People around the globe have been drinking cannabis tea, making cannabis oils, and consuming cannabis-infused alcohol for centuries. Now, companies like SJR Labs have streamlined and regularized cannabis product production.
Located down an unassuming dirt driveway in Auburn and locked away behind video-monitored gates, SJR Labs boasts a mind-boggling amount of expensive, complicated equipment. In contrast to cannabis shops and gardens, SJR doesn’t smell earthy or smoky. There is no wood paneling here—just sterile surfaces, squeaky-clean floors, and shelves of glass beakers. Two of the four owners, Adam Platz and Ryan Roy (Pepin is another co-owner), walk me through the process of distilling oil from plants, moving from one gleaming stainless- steel machine to another, until we end at a beaker filled with yellowish, viscous liquid. The oil contains a high amount of THC and almost no terpenes (the organic compounds that give cannabis strains, and some species of conifer trees, their distinctive smells). If you were to vaporize and inhale this oil, you wouldn’t taste much. You’d feel the THC, but you wouldn’t be consuming this product for its terroir.
For some people, that’s exactly what they want: to feel the effects of marijuana without tasting the plant. Platz compares these consumers to the Bud Light drinker. “I don’t think it will be just like the craft beer market—I think it will be more like the beer market in general,” he says. “There will be people who want cheap beer and people who want an intense microbrew.” For some consumers, THC is purely a form of medicine or purely an intoxicant. For others, it’s a pleasurable sensory experience with both physical and mental components. SJR wants to cater to the full spectrum of users.
Between the Bud Light and the microbrew products, this new market will mean a lot of money for people in the industry, as well as money pouring into the state coffers. According to the state’s marijuana policy office, Maine is expected to make around $16.8 million in 2021 from marijuana tax revenue and $23.7 million the following year. In other states where recreational marijuana is legal, out-of-state visitors have been a major driver of cannabis sales. A 2014 report from the Marijuana Policy Group in Colorado estimated that purchases by out-of-state visitors represented about 44 percent of metro-area retail sales and about 90 percent of sales in heavily visited mountain communities. Maine producers expect a similar tourism effect.
And growers believe that at least some of these visitors will be actively looking for a taste of Maine in their marijuana. People trust Maine-branded products, Maine-made clothes, Maine-grown food. This should work in favor of all the small cannabis companies that have sprung up organically. “Like beer and wine, people care where their cannabis comes from,” says Hawes. “We can do something authentically that other places can’t.” Pepin agrees. He says Maine has a reputation for creating “connoisseur-quality” cannabis, made by people who go out each morning and get their hands dirty, planting, cutting, watering, and harvesting. “In other markets, where there is a high cost of entry and real estate is more expensive, you have a lot of people in suits that are getting their product to market,” Pepin says. “Here, you see a lot of people who come from an overalls background. I think that will really help Maine’s market.”