Sweet Dirt
Activity inside the Sweet Dirt recreational cannabis dispensary at 1207 Forest Ave., Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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A lot can change in a year. And because of that, adult-use recreational marijuana businesses in Maine have one refrain:

Far out, man.

Maine officially legalized retail recreational marijuana sales to people 21 and over on Oct. 9, 2020. It was the culmination of a battle that lasted years, including approval from voters in a November 2016 referendum.

Some municipalities, like South Portland, were out of the gate with licensed dispensaries on day one. But the city of Portland dragged its feet, trying at first to employ a controversial – and complicated – matrix system, which would have awarded points to applicants based on various criteria. The 20 applicants who scored the highest would have been awarded the city’s only licenses. But Portland dropped that plan after it was challenged in the courts.

According to Jessica Hanscombe, the city’s director of permitting and inspections, 23 licenses have been issued to various marijuana businesses in Portland since March, including adult-use retail stores, manufacturing facilities, testing facilities, and businesses that are both retail and medical. Another 53 applications are under review, Hanscombe said.

Jim Henry
Jim Henry, chief executive officer of Sweet Dirt cannabis dispensary. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

One of the most visible dispensaries in the city is at 1207 Forest Ave., in the former Wok Inn building at Morrill’s Corner.

“It was special for us,” Jim Henry, chief executive of Sweet Dirt, said. “We spent the better part of a year getting ready for that building and renovating that beautiful building. It had gone through its dark ages, but we came right in at the end for the renaissance. We were happy to renovate a Portland landmark.”

Although it’s not downtown, Henry said Forest Avenue/Route 302 brings people from all around the state past the store, which opened in March.

“Morrill’s Corner is a really cool area,” Henry said. “Forest Avenue is one of the coolest streets in the entire state.”

Sweet Dirt opened its first storefront on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville last December. At both locations, he said, the stores have developed loyal customer bases.

“It was exciting to see this summer, we had a great amount of foot traffic,” Henry said. “Some days I would work the door in Portland, and I would see 20 licenses from different states. You name it, people from any part of the United States were coming to see us.”

Henry said Sweet Dirt prides itself on the variety of products it offers and sourcing from local providers around the state. He said most of what they sell is flower, although edibles are a growing product.

In particular, he said, there are more people over the age of 62 coming in to explore a range of products other than flower.

“We have our own edible line coming out in November, it took us a year to get it out there,” he said. “Concentrates are flying off the shelves, that’s what surprises me the most. And beverages, people love beverages.”

Cannabis-based beverages are a growing trend in the adult-use recreational market and are an alternative to smoking or vaping. Henry said it’s likely because they can create a different kind of social atmosphere – people enjoy having a beer at a social gathering, and fast-acting cannabis beverages can fit right into that tradition. Often these beverages are flavored like soda, lemonade, seltzer, or other familiar drinks.

“This is an industry that has a past, there are no two ways around that,” Henry said. “I don’t believe that was justified. It’s a wonderful industry that provides solace to people. We’re very excited that this is now a legal industry for folks. What’s really exciting is the normalization of this and to see people get into it who hadn’t before.”

134,000 sales in 1 month

According to Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy – which issues state licenses, regulates businesses, and tracks data – there were nearly 134,000 marijuana transactions across the state in August worth more than $10.2 million; they generated more than $1 million in sales tax revenue. And according to figures cited recently in the Portland Press Herald, the sales total since legalization is $38.7 million, yielding $3.8 million in sales tax revenue.

Most of that was from useable marijuana, meaning the flower, which accounted for more than $6 million of the August figure. Concentrates accounted for just over $2.2 million and infused products accounted for just under $2 million.

Kevin Kuenzig at Theory Wellness
Kevin Kuenzig serves a customer at the Theory Wellness cannabis dispensary at Mallside Plaza in South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Thomas Winstanley, marketing director at Theory Wellness, a Massachusetts company with stores in South Portland, Bangor, and Waterville, said the past year was “incredible.”

“It’s been a really great ride,” Winstanley said. “As always, there’s learning with a new market. And opening a business (during the coronavirus pandemic)was challenging. Plus with cannabis, there’s a whole other level that goes into it.”

Winstanley said the company entered its first year in Maine focused on providing quality service and products to customers. He said it’s been a good experience to see customers learn to navigate a new market like cannabis, while also learning to adapt to changing policies, like how to deal with the pandemic. 

“We never have numbers we want to hit,” he said. “It’s how did we do? Are our customers happy? And so far it’s been great. The sales trends OMP releases are showing we’re not alone. All in all, it’s been exciting. But not without challenges though.”

Winstanley said one thing that’s changed in the past year is the supply chain of available products, although new cultivators have come online to produce a variety of products. 

“The industry is still very new,” he said.

The diversity of products — from flower to edibles, from concentrates to beverages – not only gives customers a variety of options, but is a benefit to the overall market, he said. 

“With more stores, consumers have a lot of options to choose from,” Winstanley said. “It’s great for the consumer, and it’s great for businesses. Competition is a great thing. We’re always focused on how do we provide a memorable experience.”

Since the industry is still so new, he said it’s hard to get a true sense of how businesses have fared, since there’s no year-to-year comparison available. But he said the Maine stores all saw a considerable amount of tourist business in addition to sales to residents.

“Seeing the diversity of the cannabis audience is really exciting for us,” Winstanley said. “Seeing the adoption of this on a larger scale is more exciting. We always tell folks we believe cannabis access should be there for all.”

First in Portland

Portland’s first adult-use recreational business, SeaWeed Co., already had a South Portland store – which is about to mark its first anniversary – when it was finally able to open last March on Marginal Way.

Principal owner Scott Howard said while there has been a learning curve in navigating the industry, he looks at the past year as successful.

Scott Howard of SeaWeed Co. (Courtesy SeaWeed Co.)

“It will be good to have data to look at and make decisions,” Howard said. “But it’s been well received. There’s big support for tested, known substances.”

Howard, who was harvesting last week, said the company’s first year was “great” and his team was “excited this finally happened.”

“The industry is getting more recognized and more people know recreational is available,” he said. “We’re starting to learn what people are looking for and start to figure out our ethos.”

That ethos, he said, is to continue working with many products and continue to do more with the wellness side of cannabis, which includes seminars and yoga events.

“We’ve been busy,” Howard said. “It’s been very well received. The price has stabilized with recreation, unlike when we first opened up (when demand outweighed supply). And that’s passing through to consumers.”

By far, he said, flower is the best-selling product at both stores, followed by edibles.

“We’re working with a lot of products, specifically live resin and strain specific,” Howard said. “We have an edible line, a tincture line, we try to complement the flower we sell.”

Live resin is a cannabis concentrate produced using fresh flower instead of dried and cured buds. Edibles are foods infused with cannabis extract, often found in gummies or candy. Tinctures are usually found as droplets that are added to food or beverages or taken orally, and are a way to consume cannabis without inhalation or combustion.

Even though he said the stores have been well received, Howard didn’t want to make any predictions for the next year.

“I’m pretty much a realist,” he said. “I try to make conservative plans. I don’t guess too much, just measure what we did and figure where we want to go.”