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Maine is finally moving ahead with recreational marijuana — and Mainers will be the first to profit

A road sign advertised legalized marijuana for sale at a roadside shack on US Highway 201 near Solon, Maine, last August. ASSOCIATED PRESS/NBBPS via AP

Lagers, lobsters, lighthouses — and really good weed?

After years of delays, Maine is finally kick-starting the recreational marijuana market called for by voters in 2016. And under proposed regulations recently unveiled by the administration of Governor Janet Mills, Mainers — not outside investors or national cannabis conglomerates — would be the first in line to profit, with residents getting exclusive access to licenses until 2021.

The emphasis on smaller, local businesses has observers predicting that Maine’s forthcoming marijuana industry will have a unique farm-to-table feel, fitting in neatly with the economy and image of a state whose very name conjures the artisanal.


“We don’t want out-of-state corporate businesses here running our cannabis industry,” said Matt Hawes of the Maine Cannabis Industry Association, which represents small medical marijuana operators seeking recreational licenses. “If you know anything about the psyche of Maine consumers, you know we are very much locavores here.”

“Tourists don’t come here and buy Sierra Nevada — you buy Bissell Brothers,” he added, referring to a craft beer brewer in Portland.

Under the regulations drafted by Mills’s administration, individuals applying for a license must have lived in the state for the past four years.

Corporations, meanwhile, would have to prove that each officer, director, manager, and general partner has been a resident for four years, and that a majority of the firm’s ownership and control also rests in the hands of Mainers.

The residency rules, required by a 2018 state law, would expire in June 2021.

Maine’s proposal stands in contrast to Massachusetts, which has no residency requirements for most license types.

Maine is also proposing provisions intended to prevent large, national marijuana companies from quietly gaining power over local marijuana cultivators and retailers through onerous loans, management agreements, brand licensing deals, or other arrangements — schemes commonplace in Massachusetts, according to a recent Globe Spotlight Team investigation.


“We were lucky enough to be able to learn from other states, where we saw big companies coming in, gobbling up the industry, and pushing out small businesses and locals,” said Erik Gundersen, director of Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy. “We’re doing our best to ensure that doesn’t happen here.”

That stance has Hawes and others cheering, saying it leaves Maine businesses room to grow and innovate without crushing competition from “Big Weed.”

“They really went above and beyond in defining these other arrangements being made to subvert ownership regulations,” he said.

Experts said Maine’s industry will likely feature small, low-key shops close to the facility where the plants were cultivated.

Many owners of recreational shops will probably be those operating as “registered caregivers” in Maine’s medical marijuana system, which includes eight larger dispensaries but is dominated by hundreds of small-scale caregivers who last year won permission to open their own storefronts.

Their stores could stock a variety of “organic” marijuana, unique edibles, and other homespun products, while eschewing the slick vaporizer brands licensed from national companies that are common in Massachusetts pot stores.

“You can get a lobster in Massachusetts, but you get a better lobster in Maine — and it’s going to be the same with marijuana,” said Maine Representative Teresa Pierce, who cochaired the Legislature’s marijuana committee. “We’re doing this the Maine way, and it’s going to result in a better product. You’ll see people on a farm growing what they want and selling it in the local community — when people think about health and being close to the source, Maine has that advantage.”


Not everyone is thrilled with Maine’s proposed rules, with advocates objecting to a reduction in the number of plants residents can grow at home (from six to three), the elimination of social consumption venues, or pot cafes, and the lack of equity provisions giving a leg up in licensing to communities of color that faced high arrest rates when marijuana was illegal.

Under Maine law, those convicted on a felony drug charge within the past decade are ineligible for recreational licenses.

“Arbitrarily denying those who were disproportionately impacted by the drug war from participating in this legal industry would appear to be out-of-step with both public opinion and Americans’ sense of fairness,” said Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

Gundersen, the Maine policy director, said equity measures could be implemented along with other regulatory adjustments once the market is up and running. He also noted that several bills pending in the Legislature would allow records of some past marijuana-related convictions to be cleared.

But the focus for now is putting basic rules in place so stores can open as soon as possible. Voters are beyond impatient, officials said, after two-plus years of legislative wrangling and vetoes and inaction by former governor Paul LePage, a strident opponent of legalization.


“The people of Maine have spoken and they have waited long enough,” Mills said in a statement. “I believe it is time to get this done.”

Gundersen boasted that the proposed rules were drafted in just a month, a process that included getting sign-off from Maine’s attorney general and nine executive agencies.

While stressing that public health and safety concerns are not being lost amid the rush, Gundersen joked that his office — at the direction of Mills, who took office in January — is “operating at a pace unknown to state government.”

The Legislature is expected to sign off on the rules as soon as June, with licenses possibly being issued later this year.

It remains unclear how fast the industry will roll out. Not only are there concerns that the local-first rules will choke off outside capital needed to build out stores and cultivation facilities, but municipalities in Maine must affirmatively “opt in” to hosting marijuana businesses.

The rules also mean some of the state’s existing eight retail dispensaries — including several affiliated with Acreage Holdings, one of the national companies identified by the Spotlight Team as having used management contracts to gain power over large numbers of licenses in Massachusetts — could be ineligible for recreational permits. Acreage declined to comment.

Also looming: a possible loosening of restrictions on interstate pot commerce, which could bring an influx of cheap weed from warmer climates.

But supporters of the residency rules say that’s all the more reason for Maine to focus on fostering an association between the state and premium pot products that are worth the price.


“Maine is already carving out a reputation for quality on the medical side,” said David Boyer, the Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “We’re known for craft, boutique cannabis from small, local operators that put more attention into the plants — and that’s going to continue.”

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.