It’s early days for legal adult use of cannabis in Maine, but already it’s clear that the program will differ from the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Program (MMUMP) in significant ways.
Those differences will also call into question whether the MMUMP should continue to exist as a separate program, or whether it should be “harmonized” with adult use.
No Vertical Integration
The MMUMP is almost 100 percent vertically integrated, meaning that a caregiver or dispensary is responsible for producing every form of cannabis they offer. They must grow the plant, process it into edibles or other forms, package these forms and dispense them.
By contrast, the legal program will be a distributed model, which offers benefits to both producers and consumers.
For producers, a distributed model encourages specialization, and lowers capital entry requirements for small businesspersons. Why should a boutique infused chocolatier also pay to fit out a premium cultivation space when they can obtain quality raw cannabis material from a cultivation specialist at wholesale prices?
For consumers, a distributed program offers more product diversity with specialized-producer quality. Which brings us to...
On the MMUMP side, although a 2016 bill requires lab testing before any medical cannabis product can be labeled with cannabinoid or contaminant results, implementation has stalled. In Maine today, there is no effective way to ensure that standard testing requirements have been applied to all medical cannabis products.
Under the adult use program, testing labs will be an integral part of the production chain. The result will be an adult use program with a vigorous lab testing component where consumers will be certain of the cleanliness and cannabinoid profile of their products, side by side a medical program with no effective lab testing protocol.
(Warning: Alphabet soup ahead.)
The MMUMP is managed by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), newly under the oversight of Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC).
However, DHHS does not want oversight of the MMUMP. This was made abundantly clear in the legalization Committee hearing on March 21, when DHHS' Chief Medical Officer said within the first two minutes of his testimony, “We don’t consider it (the MMUMP) a ‘medical’ program.”
The CMO went on to outline the challenges faced by a State agency charged with protecting public health, while simultaneously managing a program providing access to a plant which DHHS clearly considers dangerous to public health.
The legislative Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation is considering a dual regulatory system for the adult use program. As envisioned by the Committee, all cultivation, lab testing, manufacturing and packaging processes would be overseen by the Bureau of Agriculture, Food & Rural Resources, (“Ag,” a division of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry, or DACF).
When product is finished and ready for retail sale, oversight will shift to the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations (BABLO, a bureau of the Department of Administrative & Financial Services, or DAFS). BABLO would have regulatory oversight of retail stores and social use clubs.
It remains to be seen whether Ag and BABLO will have more appetite for the regulatory tasks assigned to them by voters and legislators than DHHS has displayed for managing the MMUMP.
Number of Retail Outlets
The MMUMP licensed eight medical dispensaries in 2010, and that number has not increased in the last seven years.
The adult use statute provides no set number of adult use retail shops or social use clubs, leaving it to individual municipalities to control what types of cannabusinesses, if any, they wish to allow. Assuming that the Committee on Marijuana Legalization Implementation does not repeat the MMUMP mistake of needlessly restricting retail facilities, adult use cannabis retail outlets will be more widely available than medical cannabis dispensaries are at present.
Further, adult use stores will not require the additional step of obtaining a medical cannabis certification — any valid ID proving that the consumer is age 21 or up will suffice.
Those who wish to protect what'll surely be a smaller medical cannabis market, separate from the adult use program, must be pragmatic. The MMUMP is about a year away from having to compete against an objectively more flexible, better regulated, and more product-diverse adult use market.
The eight existing medical dispensaries are well positioned to be early entrants into that market, as are some caregivers. Ironically, the best-positioned caregivers are those who have used the lack of MMUMP oversight to play a little wide at the edges, such as by “churning” patients to serve more than the supposed five per caregiver. By responding to market demand, they have built internal systems that mirror the dispensaries’. But only a few have a tax and compliance trail to deploy as assets in their applications for adult-use licenses.
At this point, Maine’s medical cannabis advocates need to ask themselves some tough questions:
How can we clearly articulate the benefits of a medical cannabis program in the face of a larger and better-regulated adult use market? Why is there still no mandatory lab testing for contaminants and cannabinoid profile within the MMUMP inspection standards are appropriate to a cottage industry which also claims to provide “medical”-grade cannabis products? How can we best advocate for patients when our oversight agency does not see our work as part of their mandate?
It may turn out that the best way to protect and improve the MMUMP will require aligning it in some important ways with the coming adult use program.
Becky DeKeuster is CEO of Calyx Concepts, an agency which provides consulting services to medical and adult use cannabusinesses. She is a former Director of Berkeley Patients Group and co-founder of Wellness Connection of Maine.