MARIJUANA IN MAINE: Industry experts reflect on one year anniversary, law enforcement share their concerns for the future

Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 3:42 PM EDT
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Maine (WABI) - Saturday will mark the one year anniversary since the first adult-use cannabis shops opened here in Maine.

Between October 9th of 2020 through September of this year, Mainers have spent more than $54 million on marijuana.

With examples from states like Colorado and Massachusetts, players in the Marijuana industry here in Maine had some idea of what to expect.

“Look, we were the first state to launch a cannabis industry during a global health pandemic. We wanted to make sure that when we did it, we did it as responsibly and as safe as possible. Our licensees responded to that,” said Erik Gundersen, the Director of the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy.

Although some concerns were valid, the marijuana industry has collected millions of tax dollars and held a focus on health and safety for cannabis users.

“People have gained unprecedented freedom in the state of Maine being able to use cannabis as they see fit,” said Mohammed Ibrahem, CEO of Firestorm Cannabis Company.

Industry experts reflect on a year ago when it all began.

Emphasizing the major issues balancing supply and demand.

“I know there were some issues early on with the limited number of open establishments, high costs, some supply chain issues, but that’s normal for any new market, for any new industry. As much as I would love to snap my fingers and have a fully mature market, that just wasn’t realistic,” said Gundersen.

“As supply increases, things have gotten better. We’ve been able to provide more products to our customers and our patrons,” said Ibrahem.

More shops have helped balance the market.

“Just around the state in general, it’s been really exciting to see it grow,” said Jim Henry, CEO of Sweet Dirt, with locations in Portland and Waterville.

With just six stores on opening day, that number has grown to 57 statewide.

Tourism coming back in the summer months helped sales take off.

“You know, June, July, August, and I don’t suspect September is going to be any different. $10 million plus a month in August, I don’t think it’s going to be much different in September,” said Henry.

He wasn’t wrong, September saw a slight dip, but sales stayed just below $10 million.

Industry experts tell us the marijuana industry has created thousands of jobs and pumped millions of dollars into our state’s economy.

It’s also made marijuana safer for the consumer who no longer needs to get it on the black market.

“They have always had to go somewhere they didn’t really want to go to get this product. And to have it available and know that it’s safe is one of the most, if not the most important aspects of the whole program,” said Henry.

“At least at the end of the day the consumer understands what’s in that product and what’s not. It’s been tested for certain contaminants. It comes in packaging that’s child resistant and tamper proof. They can access their cannabis in that well regulated, tested, and tracked market,” said Gundersen.

And that doesn’t include one of the biggest draws of the industry, the tax revenue.

10% of all sales are going directly into the state’s general fund.

“So, I think the state is benefitting and so are the people who are looking for employment in these challenging times,” said Henry.

“You know, you can see that the state went adult use and nothing crazy happened,” said Ibrahem.

With more than 50 stores in the state, more than 100 others are waiting for applications to be approved.

“The more successful my compatriots in this industry are, the more successful we’ll all be and the more successful we’ll be in having this industry be normalized and accepted.”

The industry is growing at a rapid rate.

But the growth from this industry doesn’t come without cause for concern.

One major point of emphasis from opponents to legalizing marijuana has always been the worry we would see an increase in people driving while high.

“Primarily for us it was the increase of Operating Under the Influence. An uptick in those types of cases,” said Jared Mills, Chief of the Augusta Police Department.

That’s what police in Colorado and other states warned of when Maine followed their lead and legalized adult-use cannabis.

Chief Mills says that’s played out in his city, too.

“Look in 2016 the voters of Maine voted to legalize it. And that’s the reason the Office of Marijuana Policy is here. To make sure that we do it as responsibly as possible,” said Gundersen.

Legalizing recreational marijuana has led to spending more dollars on law enforcement.

Last year the Augusta Police Department had to increase the number of patrol officers in the streets and increase their training.

Additionally they had to hire more D.R.E.’s, drug recognition experts.

“They’re the Intoxilyzer that tell the officer at that time they are impaired or they’re not,” said Mills.

After making a suspected OUI arrest for Marijuana, these experts go through a number of tests back at the station.

Augusta Police alone have gone from one D.R.E. on staff to five.

However in 2020, there were 104 D.R.E.’s in Maine, now that number has dropped to 91.

“That number should be going in the opposite direction. We literally have to have more officers specifically trained on the streets to deal with these types of calls,” said Mills.

One of those D.R.E.’s is Lieutenant Eddie Benjamin at the Holden Police Department.

He gets called anytime, day or night, to assist in drug related OUI’s in Holden, or in surrounding towns.

“It’s a major concern we’ve had 25 OUI arrests in Holden this year, and roughly half of those are related to drugs. We’re probably going to break any existing record,” said Chris Greeley, Chief of the Holden Police Department.

Like Augusta, Holden has had to beef up patrols too.

Especially with concerns around route 1a, an area susceptible to crashes.

They don’t want to add marijuana intoxication into the mix.

“Part of why our OUI’s are going up is more increased enforcement. Increased police officer training like the drug recognition experts in our state, and the availability where more people have access to it and will perhaps drive a car after,” said Greeley.

But police departments have worked with the Office of Marijuana Policy.

A public health and safety campaign will start airing later this year.

“With an eye towards that the individuals that choose to consume cannabis and cannabis products are doing it in the safest way possible and understanding what allowed and what’s not. So excited to see the results of that work,” said Gundersen.

The marijuana industry has become a big money maker in Maine.

Industry experts all say they expect more shops to come and even more money being spent.

Mainers have what they asked for 5 years ago.

Law enforcement in our state will have to continue to find what the best way is to discourage folks from getting behind the wheel after using marijuana.

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