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Smoke Local

Where will marijuana fit into Maine's economy?
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  February 16, 2011


Lobsters, blueberries, potatoes, and . . . pot? As Maine's medical-marijuana program inches closer to business-as-usual, weed is on the verge of becoming a meaningful part of the state's economy — a budding piece of Maine's local, sustainable, pro-agriculture aesthetic. We wouldn't be surprised if, eventually, the widely adopted "Buy Local" slogan is expanded to include cannabis; already, the local economy is evolving to accommodate pot-growers, caregivers, patients, and dispensary owners. We can see the ad campaign now: A Maine farmer, weathered by the midday sun, holding up a five-leaved plant. The voiceover will ask, Do you Smoke Local?

But before that happens, the state's medi-mari program — which allows registered patients to purchase marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of qualifying medical conditions — needs to overcome some growing pains and settle into its (sizeable) shoes. There is a considerable backlog of patient applications at the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the program. There are questions about whether the list of medical conditions is sufficiently comprehensive, about confidentiality, about lingering pot-stigma. And there is a brewing conflict between people with different visions for Maine's marijuana industry (medical or otherwise): some want to keep it small-scale, while others seek to harness and develop its money-making, job-stimulating properties in a bigger way.

Despite these hiccups, there's no question that pot will pump up Maine's economy.

"[T]here will clearly be a benefit to the state in terms of tax revenue from dispensaries," says Becky DeKeuster, chief executive officer of Northeast Patients Group, which will operate four dispensaries in Maine, including the one in Cumberland County. "But beyond that, we are looking at jobs being created — not only for dispensary workers but for caregivers who are growing for patients outside the dispensary system. There will be economic stimulus for stores that sell cultivation equipment, for shops and restaurants located near dispensaries . . . We are getting calls from all over the Northeast and as far away as Wisconsin, from patients who want to move to a medical cannabis state, doctors who want to study this medicine, and people who want to work in the dispensaries. So this industry is an economic magnet for Maine, and I think in five years and beyond, we will be astounded at its positive impact on our state economy."

How that impact will be delivered remains to be seen.

The lay of the land

In November 2009, 59 percent of Maine voters approved the ballot question that expanded and clarified Maine's medical marijuana law. Possession and consumption of medical marijuana had previously been legal but logistically inaccessible. The citizen referendum, brought by Maine Citizens for Patients' Rights, sought to streamline the system of distribution and make it easier for patients to obtain medicinal cannabis. When it passed, a task force set to implementing it — looking at how similar laws work in other states, and making recommendations to former governor John Baldacci. Maine's rules were adopted last summer.

Many of those who advocated for the referendum envisioned a network of individual "caregivers" who would cultivate and distribute marijuana to eligible patients.

"We saw small-scale, mom-and-pop operations," says Jonathan Leavitt, who worked on the ballot campaign from its inception and serves as executive director of the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative.

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