High Country

A Guide to Maine’s ever-growing cannabis industry.

High Country

A Guide to Maine’s ever-growing cannabis industry.

by Katy Kelleher, Jenny O’Connell, Genevieve Walker, and Michael D. Wilson
Photography by Michael D. Wilson

Issue: September 2022

Cannabis Country

Bringing new meaning to “Vacationland.”
by Genevieve Walker

If you were to stand on Washington Avenue in Portland right where it feeds onto I-295, the Eastern Prom rising over your left shoulder and the crown of East Bayside to your right, Back Cove glittering in backdrop, you would be well positioned to take in some representative changes to the city and, in turn, the state. In front of you, brochure-ready storefronts describe the fore in consumer culinary trends: a kombuchery, a vintage VW bus-turned-charcuterie-board truck, a hoagie joint hat-tipping in high-gloss branding to a bygone Philly, a natural wine store where on weekends you can taste the “nurtured” (not “processed”) vintages under button-shaped sconces set into storm gray walls. And, among this clamor of commerce, is a curious number of cannabis retailers. Weed, aka cannabis, is the new kid on the block.

After a slow march from law to bill to code to rule in the last twenty-odd years, we have reached a new era of postprohibition cannabis in Maine. The experience of living with this freedom, however, is complex, and may require a little reeducation.

Cannabis has a wild history. Once upon a time it was legal in Maine, even back when alcohol wasn’t. (Did you know that Maine was the nation’s leader in alcohol prohibition?). Later, cannabis was outlawed and then criminalized (see the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the “war on drugs”), and for a good while it was a felony to possess any. In 1999 Maine became the fifth state in the country to legalize cannabis for medical use—“medical marijuana,” it was called, but we’ll get to that later. So, cannabis was legal again, kind of, but without directives on how it could be legally purchased, sold, or carried. It took another decade (and a citizen-initiated bill) for the impact to seem real, and for dispensaries to start opening up. Recreational, or “adult-use” was legalized statewide in 2016, and again it took a couple more years to mean what we might think of when we hear “legal.” In 2020 licenses for selling adult-use cannabis were issued at last. (For a full rundown of what happened and how, visit the websites of the Maine state legislature and the Office of Cannabis Use [OCP] at maine.gov.)

Now the legal cannabis industry is booming. In monetary value, as reported by Jennifer Rooks for Maine Calling in July, it “rivals or exceeds many of the industries people think of when they think of Maine, including potatoes and blueberries.”

Here’s what all this means for consumers: If you’re over 21 years old, you can purchase weed from a licensed retailer anywhere in the state. There are two types of programs: medical and adult-use. Some municipalities in Maine can elect to remain “dry,” meaning each town decides whether or not to allow the sale of legal, adult-use cannabis. You can use it in private, but you can’t use it or carry it on federal land or over state lines. If you have a Maine medical card, you can buy weed from medical-use outlets. Medical cards from certain other states are accepted as well (see Maine.gov’s “Visiting Patients: Approved List of States”). You, as a nonlicensed cannabis grower, can carry up to 2.5 ounces of weed or 5 grams of concentrate and can grow up to three mature plants or twelve immature plants (though your neighbors aren’t supposed to be able to see them, and they must be tagged in a specific way; see the OCP’s FAQ’s). If you’re caught driving high, you can be charged with an OUI (operating under the influence), and you can be assessed $100 fine if caught smoking/eating/vaping/ what-have-you in public.

Cannabis also has an established vocabulary. Those who are licensed to grow and sell medical weed are called caregivers, medical outlets are dispensaries, and the people working there are budtenders. The stuff you buy to put in paper and smoke is called flower (or bud). THC, CBD, and terpenes are the “effective compounds” in the cannabis plant, and they are what’s extracted to make tinctures, edibles, and drinks (and so many other things). Though there’s a ton to know when it comes to the taxonomy of the plant and how it’s made into various consumables, what you should know is that THC is the psychoactive element that makes you high. And, though we used to widely refer to the plant as marijuana, that word has been replaced by cannabis (in Maine the change was official in 2022), which is the plant’s genus, or scientific designation. “Marijuana” is considered to be a made-up word of indeterminate etymology that was attached to cannabis through powerful, political, and overtly racist marketing campaigns (see NPR’s 2013 Code Switch article “The Mysterious History of ‘Marijuana’”).

A lot of stigmas associated with cannabis are tied up in the history of the word marijuana. But not all of them. And the stigmas, no matter what we’re calling the plant, remain potent. As Cabrini University’s assistant professor of sociology and criminology Matt Reid, PhD, put it in a 2020 paper for the Journal of Cannabis Research, there is a problem referred to in the field as “blurred boundaries”: cannabis may be a medicine but it’s also a drug, and those who use it as medicine could sometimes also use it as such. And we don’t like recreational drug taking in this country. As Dr. Reid writes, there’s a strong Puritanical thread in U.S. culture that aligns pleasure derived from anything other than hard work with amorality. So, while there are camps that will argue weed has been normalized, those camps are, to paraphrase Dr. Reid, out of touch and privileged. Where cannabis is unequivocally destigmatized is situational. “After all,” writes Dr. Reid, “is not every deviant activity more or less normal depending on the social setting? Cannabis consumption is normal at a Cannabis Cup competition, just like public nudity is normal at a nude beach.”

There are a lot of people working hard to break through the stigma and give weed its due as legitimate medicine, used to help with chronic pain and nausea among many other things, and a safe intoxicant on par with, say, a glass of wine. I have friends who grow, trim, and of course consume. I grew up in Northern California, and as an “unschooled” teenager I wore the hemp-leaf symbol as a projection of my politics: liberal, sustainable, pro-decriminalization (long before I had dabbled in hemp’s mind-altering sister), so I was sort of surprised to feel nervous the day I went on my journey to visit the slick cannabis retailers in Portland. Granted, I’d never been to a dispensary before, and to be honest I rarely consume cannabis products other than CBD gummies for sleep or anxiety. I was all too aware of this as I slid my ID through the mouse-hole in plexiglass, as required to enter one recreational retailer, and then again as I stared cluelessly at a menu of flower strains in another. But in each shop I visited, the budtenders and caregivers were welcoming, informative, even conspiratorially chatty, as if my crossing the threshold had put me on the right side of the right issues.

The thing is, no matter your personal politics, when you’ve known a substance to be culturally deviant and illegal, it takes work not to associate it with illicit behavior; it’s next to impossible not to sense the stigma lurking beneath the newly Etsy-fied decor, with cannabis flowers pinned inside bell jars like butterflies and post-girl-boss slogans glittering up everything from rolling papers to T-shirts (“It’s called self-care, sweetie”). The guards at the entrance of certain stores are part of it. So are the printouts littering counters (“Need a medical cannabis card? You only need to make a phone call!”). It’s all really new: the rules, the retailers, the way customers interact with the product, the way budtenders don’t always seem to know exactly how the business they’re working for operates, the way trimmers often don’t know where the weed they’re getting paid by the pound to harvest will end up. There’s a gray market. Medical weed is cheaper than adult-use, and it’s not tested and regulated to the same degree, which may seem a little backwards—and many think it is—but overregulation could drive up the price and force growers “back underground,” all of which has contributed to what is currently a culture of caveat emptor, with requisite faith in rational actors. As a consumer, the onus is on you to do your research and develop a relationship with a particular caregiver or dispensary to find a strain that works the way you want it to. Naturally, people have favorite growers; they also follow Reddit threads to learn when product will be available and where to get it.

The number of dispensaries and stores continues to grow. According to the OCP open data portal as of this writing, there are 261 pending and active licenses for adult-use stores, 39 pending and active medical dispensary licenses, 2,758 registered caregivers, and 201 caregiver applications in Maine. Though the question on the street is whether there is enough demand to sustain all of these stores and dispensaries, Erik Gundersen, director of Maine’s Office of Cannabis Policy, told Rooks that there is. Demand is high, but what sticks long-term will depend on the market, once it’s had a chance to self-regulate. According to industry chatter I have heard, prices are currently not so high as they once were, and a pound of cannabis is fetching significantly less than it was in 2020. Granted, all of this can change in a flash.

The greater money issue facing the industry at the moment seems to be the banks: by and large they don’t deal with the cannabis industry, which is still illegal at the federal level. At most shops you pay in cash, though not all. There is at least one in Portland that has a relationship with a credit union, which I know because I used a credit card to buy an edible. How that relationship was established, however, wasn’t totally clear—or maybe just not something they wanted to share with me).

All this to say, the industry is—forgive the expression—still in the weeds. But there’s evidence that our state is making strides ahead of others. The percentage of illicit use in Maine is thought to be comparatively low; the price gap between illegal and legal weed is not wide. And now that I broke the seal, I am pretty stoked to go back to the stores. I’m thinking a mellow, Maine-grown, CBD seltzer would make a nice addition to my next garden party.

Novel Ideas

Novel Beverage CEO Matt Hawes shares insights from the bleeding edge of cannabis-infused beverage manufacturing, and the role beverages could play in transforming Maine’s cannabis industry.
by Jenny O’Connell

With over 20 years of experience in the legal cannabis industry, Matt Hawes is the CEO of Novel Beverage Company, a licensed cannabis-infused beverage manufacturing facility in Scarborough. Bringing superior emulsion technology to the table, Novel Beverage has teamed up with trusted brewing companies like Shipyard Brewing and Sea Dog Brewing to create a beverage option for cannabis consumers. We spoke with Hawes to get the scoop on the brand-new market for THC beverages, and where he sees it going next.

What you’re doing with Novel is new (no pun intended) to a lot of folks. What sets, say, a Novel Beverage Pumpkinhead apart from a regular Pumpkinhead?

MATT HAWES: For people who are averse to alcohol—I’ve been one of those people—it’s a great alcohol alternative. There’s no odor, there’s no smoke; there’s also no alcohol. These products are low-dose THC, and it’s much easier to control the experience. We have a couple of 5 milligram products on the market that are safe for almost anybody who is seeking to have a cannabis experience, whether it be their first time or their thousandth.

Adult beverage products are no longer limited to alcohol, and I think over time that’s going to become a much more common ideology in our culture. It’s an entirely different biological experience.

How have you seen the public opinion shifting around cannabis?

MH: Brand names bring with them consumer trust. We found that, particularly with Shipyard and Sea Dog’s products, people who would not necessarily have trusted a cannabis product found it much easier to believe that it was a safe thing for them to experiment with. These trusted brands are entering the space, and I welcome their participation because of the awareness that they bring. It would have taken us decades to break through to some of the people who struggle to see cannabis as a safe and viable alternative to alcohol.

You’ve been in the cannabis industry for 20 years. What about it draws you in on a personal level?

MH: For me, it started as an accident. Coming out of high school, I was a guy who had a hard time connecting and identifying with a peer group or cultural set. Cannabis provided that for me, which I think is common. Later in my life, I actually developed a pretty serious drug and alcohol addiction. I got sober eleven-and-a-half years ago. I didn’t use cannabis for seven years, but I have found that I can have a healthy relationship to it. As a non-drinking person, a sober person, it feels really great for me to be a part of putting alternatives out into the world.

Part of my journey has been trying to contribute to putting the social aspects of [cannabis] back on a fair track. I do a lot of policy work, and I’m a founding director of the Maine Cannabis Industry Association. A lot of my motivation is rooted in advocacy. I’m a white guy running a business, but I have a lot of awareness around it. My first legal cannabis business was in Oakland, California, when I was 22 years old, and I watched my neighbors being treated differently than me. Even as a privileged person, I suffered from a perception standpoint. Not being able to tell my neighbors what I did for a living meant I could never integrate into a community, which was lonely. I felt like my country was wrongly labeling me as a criminal, and not thinking beyond this preconceived notion [of cannabis] that is rooted in propaganda. So, all of these things are a big part of what motivates me to stay in this space.

For those of us who haven’t tried a Novel Beverage before, can you talk a little bit about taste?

MH: Technology has come a long way. We’re extracting all the cannabinoids off the plant material entirely and then refining them, so we’re working with a pretty clean input that has almost no aroma or flavor. At Novel Beverage, we are currently primarily focused on bringing simple, familiar flavors to market. If you look across the globe, a lot of THC beverage companies seem to feel like they have to be doing something kind of extreme to justify their existence in this space and to get peoples’ attention. What we’ve found is that people seem to be more comfortable drinking something that they’re familiar with, like root beer or cider. We are very fortunate to have had a guy named Andrew Sheffield join our team. His last position was the head of brewing operations for Baxter Brewing Company, and he’s a certified sommelier. He simply will not make a drink that doesn’t taste good.

I think over time you will see cannabis drinks becoming more differentiated, probably following along the lines of alcohol, where you can have craft cocktails, domestic beer, micro beers, and wines with white, red, and sparkles. But in this early phase, we’re really focused on simple, familiar, yummy drinks.

If you were to introduce a friend to one of these beverages for the first time and they weren’t familiar with the cannabis experience, what would you tell them?

MH: Five milligrams for your first experience. These are good products for experimentation because they are low-dose. We know what the actual concentration of THC is in all of them. With smoking, it’s much more challenging to control your dose. I think that the future of this category is continued lower and lower dose, to the point where people can have two or three of them. A consumption experience is something that humans seem to enjoy. Having something to hold in your hand that you can sip on— cannabis drinks are the answer to that for the cannabis consumer.

What’s the price for one of these beverages right now?

MH: Most of them are $7 a bottle. The cost of a fancy Starbucks latte or a craft beer.

What is your vision for the future of Novel Beverage?

MH: As a cannabis advocate, I’m naturally an access advocate. One of the things that I appreciate about the beverage category is that I think it does break down a barrier to getting conventional sales channels opened up to cannabis. It fits very well into the convenience store model, and I think that can get the conversation going around THC.

For me personally, I can bring some of my ideals to the business and try to be a more responsible corporate citizen and corporate neighbor, which I think is something we’re really lacking in this country. Cannabis businesses are in a unique position to lead the way on that because we are such a well-capitalized market, we have such a growth opportunity, and we represent huge economic impacts in the areas where we operate, but our leaders are typically pretty forward-thinking folks. I’m hopeful that cannabis as an industry can try to have some small but beneficial impact on capitalism as a whole.

Is there anything else you want to say?

MH: I think the most important message for me right now is that we have real statistical data to show that regulated cannabis markets displace unregulated cannabis markets. And, with all the love that I have for the unregulated markets or what a lot of people call the “legacy markets,” it’s a place where you don’t have to be ethical to survive. I think most about our young people. I feel much better having cannabis in the world through a network of sales channels, where everyone’s checking IDs and they’re not selling any other substances. I think that is a healthier way for cannabis to live in our world, and regulated markets are the only thing that has ever effectively accomplished that.

Regardless of how you feel about cannabis, one thing that everybody can know when they look at these regulated cannabis operators is that we all chose to be regulated. I think that the fact we’ve all made this decision should give everyone a great deal of confidence in believing that our intentions are authentic, and that we are in this to put cannabis in our communities in a much safer and healthier way.

When Less is More

The rise of the microdose.
by Katy Kelleher

There are few things worse, in my opinion, than being too high. You wonder how you can leave the party without anyone noticing, so you creep out a bathroom window and scuttle home without your jacket. You spend hours trying to locate a mole that you know—you know—is somewhere on your foot and is definitely, without a doubt, cancerous. You scream in terror at the sound of a police siren coming from the television playing your eighth episode of Law and Order, which you forgot you were watching. I will not reveal how often I’ve had this type of harrowing experience, but suffice it to say: I know what I’m talking about.

Fortunately, I’ve been free of THC freak-outs for over a decade. I still imbibe occasionally, but it never gets out of control, thanks to the wonder of a microdose.

What is a microdose? The definition depends on whom you ask. For growers and sellers, a microdose of THC is typically between 1 milligram and 5 milligrams. “In medical, 25 milligrams is considered a low dose,” says Matt Hawes of Novel Beverage Company. “I have industry friends who are business owners who have said they can consume 100 milligrams and go to work.” At that point in our conversation, I am unable to hold back my shock. “I know,” Hawes laughs. “It’s wild how high the tolerance is for some high-dose consumers.” But like me, Hawes prefers to sip on a lower-dose drink. A couple of milligrams here, a few there, building slowly to the sweet spot. For me, it’s marked by the gradual softening of my neck muscles and the steadying of my gaze. I look away from screens and see the colors of the world around me.

This is a common effect of microdosing, says integrative medicine physician Dustin Sulak. The Portland-based founder of Healer (a line of medicinal cannabis products) doesn’t like to measure microdoses by the amount of THC, but rather by the effect it has on the individual. “There can be a dose of cannabis that helps you feel better without causing impairment,” he says. While he notes that impairment isn’t always a bad thing—“in the right setting, people like to get high and feel euphoric”—microdosing isn’t about getting lit. It’s about treating a symptom, like my lifelong anxiety or my aggressive migraines, without decreasing one’s ability to function. A microdose should be perceptible to the user, but barely.

In order to help users get the right microdose for them, Sulak offers worksheets with his line of low-dose hemp and cannabis tinctures, edibles, and vaporizers. These questionnaires are designed to help users slowly work their way up from 1-milligram drops. Some patients report that marijuana use has enabled them to reach their peak performance levels. “Let’s talk about the enhanced performance aspect,” says Sulak. Microdosers report feeling more creative, more resilient to stress, less reactive to negative situations, and more accepting. While few people will admit to using THC at work, Sulak says some of his patients have used it to feel “more empathetic” and “better able to relate to the people they’re working with. It can also help you stay in the present moment.” He continues, “If you look at everything I just described, these are major attributes of the flow state.”

While many people become more creative, empathetic, or engaged while properly stoned, this has never been the case for me. Personally, I find that higher doses of marijuana are anxiety triggers and creativity blockers. I’ve also discovered that smoking weed is rarely pleasurable for me. Instead, I like to mix a drop of tincture into a seltzer. Or even better, I sip a low-dose, session-style THC drink purchased from a recreational dispensary.

Unfortunately, while every gas station in the state has a rack of White Claws, it can be hard to find a cold cannabis seltzer. Hawes identifies several headwinds pushing against the swell of micro-dose products. Not only do many dispensaries lack beverage coolers, but there’s also a real cultural barrier when it comes to low-dose use. “You need budtender buy-in,” says Hawes. “Think of it like this: low-dose products are Vespas. The recreation places are Harley-Davidson dealerships. You’re trying to buy a Vespa from the Harley-Davidson shop. It’s a culture thing.”

This is changing—slowly. Damon Holman of Wind Hill Growers here in Maine says he’s noticed a rising interest in low-dose products, which is why they’ve just introduced a new 2-milligram bonbon. “For many people, microdosing is more effective than larger doses,” he says. “One can achieve many of the medicinal benefits of cannabis, such as pain relief, stress relief, or improvement of sleep, without impairment. This is of particular benefit for older patients who often aren’t interested in feeling high but need relief.” He also points out that these products can be “great for daytime use.”

A little chocolate after lunch? Don’t mind if I do.

A Growing Business

Words and photography by Michael D. Wilson

Ancient Green Farm owners Bobby and Kate Gaudette, along with their kids Olivia & Ella, inspect their crops inside the Walipini at the farm. Their regenerative farming process relies on the health of the soil and a variety of plants to help support the growth quality of their hemp-derived CBD products.

When I was nine years old, my grandparents had a tiny greenhouse on their small family farm. That playhouse-sized glass structure was where I can first recall learning the true smell of good, rich soil. I remember one summer afternoon, as the Midwest sun was bathing everything in a warm glow, walking through the sliding door and being washed over by the candy-sweet fragrance of healthy dirt. In my own home garden here in Maine, when I am turning the land with my hands, the smell can bring my mind floating lazily back to that moment in my childhood.

Though I’ve been gardening for years, last year was the first time I had the chance to nurture cannabis. A kind and generous friend gave me a small clone of his favorite plant and asked if I wanted to take it home with me and try raising it. Not sure what my new buddy would want, I decided to pot it in a small, repurposed planter so that I could move it around the yard until I could find a spot that would perhaps allow it to flourish.

I set to work making what I hoped would be the best bed for it: some home compost, soil from the yard, and dried leaves. Once I mixed it all up, my hands coated in the earthen dust, I was hit with that same beautiful sensory memory of my grandparents’ greenhouse. I felt a sudden and complete sense of ease and comfort in this newfound hobby. The harvest was very small but felt like the richest treasure to me because I had coaxed it into existence. My little plant had not only survived, but had made its own thriving ecosystem of worms and happy bugs, all nestled in harmony.

This brings me to my new joy and hobby: soil. After my plant went through its lifecycle, I spent the following winter reading about living soil and watching soil documentaries. I started to think about how soil like this could possibly be used in larger growing operations. I feel like there is a lifetime’s worth of information to learn, but have been amazed with how different Maine cannabis growers manage their soil and growing environments, and how joyful those growers often are. Kids revel in the delight of being dirty, of coating themselves in earth and finding beauty in the smallest cities of nature. It has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life to learn that grownups can to do the same, if they allow themselves the freedom. There are few things from childhood that we get to hold onto as adults, but strangely and beautifully enough, soil has become one of them for me.

Transplanting smaller plants into large fabric beds is done by hand at Loud & Local Cannabis.

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