Cannabis flower packaged for sale by SeaWeed Co., one of two adult-use marijuana retailers preparing to open Oct. 9 in South Portland. (Courtesy SeaWeed Co.)
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Get ready to light ’em up, ladies and gentlemen. It’s about to be a pleasure to burn.

That faint skunky odor and increasing desire for Domino’s Pizza you think you’re experiencing isn’t a mistake. Oct. 9 is almost here, and with it comes a day conceived years ago, with several starts and stops along the way: licensed, legalized sale of recreational marijuana to adults.

There are still several caveats attached to full-time 420. Portland, the state’s largest and most progressive city, will not have any adult-use recreational stores in the near future. The only stores nearby are in South Portland. But that doesn’t mean others aren’t prepared for the day stores will be allowed to open in the city.

But it also means Mainers far and wide need to be ready for it to be weed day every day and for their first forays into legal marijuana. So, what do you need to know?

The exterior of the soon-to-open Theory Wellness cannabis dispensary in the Mallside Plaza in South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

‘A kid in a candy store’

A strip mall probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you imagine what one of the first retail marijuana stores will look like in southern Maine. But with less than two weeks until opening, Thomas Winstanley, marketing director at Theory Wellness, said things were humming at 198 Maine Mall Road in South Portland.

“We cannot wait, we’re super excited,” Winstanley said, adding the business just got its cultivation license, meaning it will be producing its own products in a vertically integrated cannabis company. “We will have full control over the manufacturing process.”

Theory Wellness already has a store in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and Winstanley said the South Portland store is following the Massachusetts experience for setup and menu style.

“When it comes to visiting the store, one key insight we got in our Massachusetts store is there’s a bit of a kid in a candy store kind of experience when this is your first experience,” he said.

To avoid that, he said, the staff at Theory Wellness is trained to be what Winstanley called “experts” in their products. They are taught to be able to help customers figure out exactly what they’re looking for, whether it be a flower to put in a pipe, a gummy chew to help sleep through the night, or a topical cream to help with arthritis.

He said Theory Wellness wants to create a direct dialogue with customers so they can ask questions. The most important part of the dialogue? Figuring out what a customer’s experience is with cannabis, and the effect they want to achieve.

“Obviously buying cannabis in a store is a huge change for a lot of people,” Winstanley said. “We want to make sure when they enter, they have support and tools they need to have a positive experience. It’s a huge difference from the way this industry has evolved. Part of our goal is to always meet customers where they are on their cannabis journey.”

For people new to the process, he said it’s important to come in and consult with the experts to figure out the best products for the desired outcome. He called that a “fundamental cannabis rule.” For example, the products they might recommend to someone who has trouble sleeping are very different than the products they might recommend for someone hosting a dinner party.

“We can help recommend different products for the activity you’re setting out,” Winstanley said.

Not far from Theory Wellness, on Running Hill Road, South Portland’s other retail cannabis store is also preparing for an Oct. 9 grand opening. Scott Howard, principal owner of SeaWeed Co., said his company is planning a celebration with food trucks and live music.

But, he said, there will be only a few people allowed in the store. “It’s going to be interesting,” Howard said Monday.

SeaWeed Co. is one of several businesses that have applied for a license in Portland, too, and will have to continue waiting on that process. Howard has previously said he expects their storefront on Marginal Way will be ready to go as soon as Portland starts awarding licenses.

Greg Phillips, an employee at Theory Wellness, at work at the cannabis dispensary’s soon-to-open retail store in South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Start low, go slow

So, what exactly should you be looking for when you walk into a store like Theory Wellness or SeaWeed Co.? As it turns out, it’s not as simple as it used to be.

Again, “A lot of it comes down to a person’s individual history with cannabis and what is the desired outcome,” Winstanley said.

For example, Winstanley said he’s an avid trail runner. So before a run, he may take what is known as a sativa, which is the more psychoactive part of marijuana, to get an uptick of energy and a sense of euphoria.

Later, he may want to use a CBD cream on his calf muscles if they are sore after a long run, because CBD is more aligned with medical benefits and non-psychoactive responses.  Or he may eat a CBD gummy to help recover, too.

“Everyone has their own different patterns of how cannabis can interact with their lifestyle,” Winstanley said. “This is where we want to encourage folks not to just come in and buy a bunch of stuff, because everybody responds differently. Our recommendation always is start low and go slow.”

Products available at Theory Wellness come in standardized 5-milligram increments. He said 5-milligrams is a very low dose, and if consumed in the right circumstance will have a mild effect. He said it’s important for people who are just starting out or returning after a long hiatus to start with lower doses, and give it time. The last thing the business wants is for a customer to take too much of a product, Winstanley said, and end up feeling anxious or paranoid. The key, he said, is to start with lower doses and not take more than what’s recommended on the packaging.

“You can always do more,” he said, “but you can’t do less.”

As for what a person should be looking for, whether they are a first-time buyer or a seasoned veteran who followed the Grateful Dead around for years, it all depends on the desired effect.

For example, consider a person who says they have trouble sleeping at night. Winstanley said they would be asked about their history with cannabis, and if they were more interested in the THC side of marijuana, which is more psychoactive, or the CBD side, which is more medicinal.

“The next question is how do you want to consume it?” he said: Do you want to smoke a joint or from a pipe, or maybe use a vaping product? Or perhaps eat a gummy or an edible?

Once those determinations have been made, the business will make a recommendation. In this example, Winstanley said, if the customer looking to improve their sleep wanted a vaping product, he would recommend an indica, which is a type of flower that is more physically relaxing. He said there is a spectrum, with indica on one end and sativa, which is more uplifting, on the other.

He said this hypothetical person who is looking to sleep through the night would be recommended an indica vaping product.

“So, take one or two puffs, not inhales but small puffs,” he said. “Hold it in, release it, and let it sit for a minute or two. See how it feels. From there, if you’re still feeling good, you can try a bit more. But we want to make sure you don’t go home and start inhaling this and get too far ahead.”

A selection of products offered by SeaWeed Co., which will open Oct. 9 on Running Hill Road in South Portland. (Courtesy SeaWeed Co.)

Menu items

At a base level, Winstanley said, there are three major flower categories: Indicas, which are associated with non-psychoactive parts of the cannabis plant, and are usually darker in color, sativa, which are more energetic and uplifting, coming from the psychoactive parts, and a hybrid of the two.

“So based on that spectrum, you can identify different expressions,” he said.

Before a flower goes on the business menu, Theory Wellness does a genealogical study of the plant to see where it came from and what effects it produces, based on its parents.

From that genealogy, Winstanley writes descriptions for the menu. The South Portland menu isn’t available to the public yet, he said, but will be a few days ahead of the Oct. 9 opening.

But the Massachusetts menu gives detailed descriptions for customers to understand what spectrum a flower falls on, what flavors to expect, how aromatic it is, and what the desired effects may be. The menu also lists the products available, ranging from edibles, chocolates, pre-rolled joints, vape cartridges, and more.

South Portland will have different products than in Massachusetts, but categories will be similar.

“We take the time to make these descriptions, so you’re not just picking a name and trying that,” he said. “You’re seeing a description. Every flower is labeled, to help people understand what they’re in for.”

Winstanley said the goal is to provide as much information as possible. 

“This is a really fun and exciting time,” he said. “Having this movement expand we think is beneficial for everyone. And depending on your comfort level, there is a product for everyone.”

Hannah King, an attorney on Drummond Woodsum’s regulated substance team: “The reality is we won’t have a fully operational market until 2021.” (Courtesy Drummond Woodsum)

Portland paradox

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was decriminalized recreational marijuana in Maine. Initially approved by popular vote in a 2016 referendum that made Maine the ninth state to legalize recreational use, municipalities around the state weren’t exactly blazing a path towards retail stores.

Portland, somewhat confusingly, is still lagging behind in awarding business licenses. Portland voters were early in their support, approving a 2013 referendum to legalize marijuana within city limits. However, Portland opted to award just 20 business licenses for adult-use recreational marijuana businesses.

But there’s no definitive answer as to when those 20 businesses will be approved. Wellness Connection sued the city in federal court and obtained a temporary restraining order that prevents Portland from giving priority to applicants who reside in Maine. Although the city is still undecided about its next steps regarding the lawsuit, its lawyers have begun reviewing applications on other criteria before moving on to actually awarding points.

The city received 43 applications by an Aug. 31 deadline, and legal staff for the city have said it could be a while before they begin awarding points.

Hannah King, an attorney on Drummond Woodsum’s regulated substance team, which has represented recreational marijuana businesses, said she didn’t think Portland would begin issuing licenses before November, and city stores probably won’t start opening up until winter in 2021.

But she also said that’s not a huge step behind everyone else. Retail marijuana businesses aren’t able to get products from existing medical marijuana facilities, which have been around longer and have a more mature infrastructure. So adult-use products have to come from adult-use facilities, of which there are few.

“The reality is we won’t have a fully operational market until 2021,” King said.

A SeaWeed Co. in-store display. (Courtesy SeaWeed Co.)

Be prepared

Regardless of where the stores are, though, King said as of Oct. 9 residents from all over the state can go wherever they want to openly purchase products. She said customers should be prepared.

First, she said, people hoping to enter a store like Theory Wellness should make sure they have a state-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license. Like alcohol, adult-use recreational marijuana is only available to people 21 years and older, and stores are required to check IDs.

A second thing to know is how much you can buy per day. She said a person can buy up to 2.5 ounces of flower a day, and up to 5 grams of concentrate.

A third thing she said to be on the lookout for is long lines, especially since so few of these stores will be open. Initial demand is expected to be high.

And besides paying for products, expect to pay the state a 20 percent tax at the point of sale.

But, King said, the most important thing to know before walking into a store is to not be afraid to ask for help.

“I think the best advice is to make sure to ask questions and don’t feel silly asking questions,” King said. “The staff are going to be expecting people to have questions.”

King and Winstanley said information can be found on packaging for products, but the easiest way to understand what’s best for individual use is to start asking questions.

“We want people to enjoy this the way we do,” Winstanley said. “It’s good to ask questions and understand why you want to use that.”

Both Winstanley and King said the adult-use recreational market has the consumer benefit of having products that are highly tested. Winstanley said the recreational market uses third-party testing labs, so buyers know exactly what is in a product and know the product is safe.

“People will be impressed with how sophisticated and professional these stores are,” King said. “The majority of the adult-use market is folks who are coming back to marijuana after a long time, and didn’t use the black market.”

Scott Howard of SeaWeed Co.: “We’re trying to cater to the customer, (offering) good education and a nice experience.” (Courtesy SeaWeed Co.)

From an industry perspective, King said, this is an exciting moment. It was a hard journey for many businesses since they were not able to hire or start buying equipment when it wasn’t clear when this day would come.

“I think we’re in a position now where the industry can be making educated business decisions,” King said.

Howard, of SeaWeed Co., also agreed it will be important to ask questions of the “budtenders” who will staff his store.

“We’re trying to cater to the customer, (offering) good education and a nice experience,” he said. “There’s no rushing.”

Howard said the staff at SeaWeed will be able to answer questions from any customer, whether they are new to cannabis or experienced users.

“They’ve done everything from working extraction to lab work to visiting grows,” he said.

Don’t do weed and drive

So much for the advice. There are also rules and regulations, with criminal penalties, that govern where and how people can use marijuana products.

Portland Police Lt. Robert Martin said marijuana regulation is similar to how alcohol is regulated, and a person driving under the influence of marijuana can still be charged with operating under the influence of drugs.

“There is no breath test for marijuana but a chemical test (of blood and/or urine) can be requested if a person is believed to be impaired by the use of cannabis,” he said.

He added marijuana products cannot be consumed in a public place or in a motor vehicle being operated on a roadway.

“Most of the violations are civil offenses and offenders can be issued a summons to appear in court,” Martin said. “OUI is a misdemeanor and is an arrestable offense.”

Cannabis-infused chews from Theory Wellness.

Active pot market starts small

The Maine Office of Marijuana Policy has dozens of applications for retail adult-use marijuana licenses either conditional or pending, including licenses for manufacturing facilities, cultivation facilities, and testing sites. The OMP website updates the licensing status every Monday.

According to OMP representative David Heidrich, obtaining a license is a three-step process. The first step is getting a conditional license from the OMP. The second step is getting local authorization from a municipality. The third and final step is the full license from the Office of Marijuana Policy.

The following businesses have been granted active business licenses for retail marijuana operations as of Sept. 28:

SeaWeed Co., South Portland.

Theory Wellness, South Portland.

Sweet Relief Shop, Northport.

Coastal Cannabis Co., Damariscotta.

Jamy Enterprises, Newry.

Northland Botanicals, Stratton.

— Colin Ellis

Associate Corporation Counsel Anne Torregrossa, second row far left, speaks during the City Council’s remote Sept. 28 workshop on marijuana business licensing. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

City Council mulls reply to marijuana license lawsuit

The Portland City Council may amend or even dismantle the scoring matrix it has proposed to award 20 retail marijuana business licenses.

In a workshop Monday, the city’s attorneys presented three possible amendments to the scoring plan, which awards points to license applicants for various qualifications, including local ownership.

The plan has been challenged in court by Wellness Connection, which claims the residency requirement is unconstitutional. A U.S. District Court judge has issued a restraining order against the city, temporarily preventing the use of the residency requirement.

Associate Corporation Counsel Anne Torregrossa presented councilors with three options for responding to the lawsuit.

The first would eliminate two parts of the matrix that award points for local residency. Torregrossa said this option could lead to a dismissal of the federal lawsuit, which is currently on hold.

The second option would be to dump the matrix and award licenses based on a lottery. Mayor Kate Snyder summarized this as the “least litigious option;” Torregrossa said the downside is it could lead to less-qualified applicants receiving licenses.

The third option would be to “remove any harm” to existing applicants, Torregrossa said, and give licenses to all qualified applicants. She said this option is not recommended.

Torregrossa said the city received 43 applications, and 12 have been disqualified primarily because of existing tax delinquencies.

Only five councilors – Belinda Ray, Justin Costa, Nick Mavodones, Tae Chong, and Jill Duson – attended the workshop in addition to Snyder, and there was a preference for eliminating the residency consideration.

Ray said she preferred the third option. Costa was open to all three, although his preference was for options two or three. Duson said she did not want to change the process at all, and the others were in favor of option one.

Snyder said the full council could look at language for the three possible amendments at its Oct. 5 meeting, and schedule a vote for Oct. 19. Costa asked for emergency consideration, so city staff can immediately begin the licensing work.

“My hope is to get closure and move forward with this,” he said. “The longer this goes on, the more difficult it is going to be in the current economic environment to survive. I will support anything that brings closure.”

— Colin Ellis