Cannabis meetings launch in Biddeford

Cannabis growers and sellers told state regulators Wednesday that dealing with different sets of fees and regulations in every municipality in the state is one of the biggest challenges facing their industry.

“With labor shortages, increasing wages that we’re paying, the cost of inflation, the cost of federal prohibition and our tax code, what’s left after our bank charges does not equal minimum wage,” said Joanna Russell, who runs Norumbega Provisions in Scarborough.

She said fees for cannabis manufacturers in South Portland are $350 a year, while in nearby Scarborough they are $2,500 a year and in Portland, $10,000 a year.

Russell was one of about 40 people who attended the first of five town hall-style meetings hosted by the Maine Office of Cannabis Policy. Erik Gundersen, director of the office, told Russell that the state does not control the fees or ordinances in place across the state.

In fact, only 7-8% of cities and towns across the state have opted to allow recreational cannabis sales, he said. In addition to meeting with the public, Gundersen and his staff are meeting with municipal officials to help explain the programs and offer any assistance.

“They are allowed to set up what their licensing regime will look like, allowed to set up those ordinances and they are allowed to set those fees,” he said during a meeting at the University of New England campus in Biddeford.

State lawmakers recently passed a measure that allows the office to give cities and towns up to $20,000 to help pay for legal fees and other needs related to setting up local programs, said Vern Malloch, deputy director of operations for the cannabis office.

Maine has two related, yet distinct, cannabis programs. One is the medical use program in which licensed caregivers sell cannabis to patients with a doctor’s order. The other is the adult use program that permits recreational marijuana sales and was launched in the fall of 2020.

Rep. Patty Hymanson (D-York) told the group that many people she speaks with are leery of the adult-use cannabis industry.

“The referendum passed but not by very much and in southern Maine it passed by very small margins,” she said.

The question passed at the ballot box in 2016 with just 50.26% support.

As a neurologist, Hymanson also emphasized the importance of keeping cannabis out of the hands of teenagers. She hopes funds will be made available to local health agencies to warn of the dangers of teen cannabis use.

Gundersen said there will be public health campaigns to spread information about cannabis, including cannabis use disorder.

The group also discussed the lack of testing requirements for the medical cannabis program, while testing is required for cannabis sold for recreational use. Gundersen said his office is working on ways to institute a testing or labeling requirement for the medical use program, but they are aware that previous attempts have failed in the Legislature.

Malloch said as the office speaks with municipal officials about allowing the industry in their cities and towns, he tells them they should consider it one way to cut down on illicit drugs.

“I remind them there’s already cannabis in their communities,” he said. “It’s in the illicit market. The only way we’re going to stop the illicit market is to support the regulated market. If you are willing to allow some level of retail sales in your community, you’re going to be driving the drug dealers out.”

Other upcoming cannabis meetings are set for: 6 p.m. July 20 in Waterville at the Best Western Hotel’s O’Brien’s Events Center; 6 p.m. Aug. 24 in Bangor at the Bangor Arts Exchange; 6 p.m. Sept. 14 in Ellsworth at the city’s municipal building; 6 p.m. Oct. 12 in Presque Isle at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

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