Maine cannabis stores thrive even in the pandemic

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Despite a global pandemic overshadowing the launch of Maine’s legal marijuana market, shops in the state are reporting brisk business.

Maine began allowing the sale of medical marijuana on October 9th, 2020. While they were unable to replicate the grand opening scenes that have followed the first sales in other states because of the worsening effects of COVID-19 in the state and country at that time, regulators reported more than $1 million in sales in October, more than $1.2 million in November and nearly $2 million in December. The number of retail businesses also continues to grow.

“Despite all the market challenges, everything from COVID to supply chains and beyond, Maine has done a really good job getting this market up and running,” said Thomas Winstanley, vice president of marketing for Theory Wellness, which has locations in South Portland and Waterville. “Cannabis is becoming part of the social fabric.”

Maine went legal in 2016 and then took nearly four years to create a legal framework for retail sales. The rollout of legal marijuana sale was previously scheduled for April of 2020, but was pushed to October due to setbacks caused by COVID-19. This time, the state’s Office of Marijuana Policy said they feel confident that launching the program is in the interest of the public’s “health and safety,” MaineBiz reports.

“While we were poised to launch this new industry earlier this year, we were unwilling to sacrifice the high standards we have set for this program by launching during an emerging public health pandemic and in the absence of a testing facility,” said Erik Gundersen, director of the Office of Marijuana Policy. “With the support of the public health community, municipalities across the state, and the industry we regulate, we have used the last few months to ensure this new industry is introduced to Maine consumers in a manner that is as responsible as possible.”

Cannabis sales in Maine are much less than Massachusetts, which also went legal in 2016 and was swifter to set up its marijuana program. Officials in Massachusetts have reported more than $1 billion in sales going back to fall 2018.

Maine is now home to 15 marijuana stores, 16 cultivation facilities and nine product manufacturing facilities that have active licenses. The state approved the first six active licenses in September. Dozens more licenses are in various places along the pipeline.

Maine’s program was tailored to meet the needs of a smaller state. The state is wise to take a cautious approach to growing the industry, especially during a pandemic, said Scott Gagnon, a member of the Maine Marijuana Advisory Commission.

Consumers have had to exercise the same kind of social distancing and face-covering requirements as everyone else in Maine, which is subject to a statewide mask directive from Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat.

“In other states, on the first day of sales, there are people lined up along the block and it’s a big, huge thing,” Gagnon said. “I think it has, at least compared to other states before us, been less of a big deal.”

Maine’s long-established medical marijuana program, which dates to the late 1990s, is also still operating during the pandemic. The medical program remains much larger, accounting for more than $200 million in sales last year.

Some in the medical marijuana business approached retail legalization with trepidation, and that has continued with the roll-out of recreational sales, said Catherine Lewis, chairwoman of the board for the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine trade association.

“The way it was rolled out was more for large commercial businesses as opposed to the small Maine cottage industry we started with the medical program,” she said.

For now, though, the retail industry is excited it’s getting up and running, even under less than ideal circumstances, said David Boyer, a Portland-based cannabis industry consultant.

“Maine has grown marijuana for a long time, and with tourism down due to COVID it can be tough for some of these places when you open up,” Boyer said. “There’s stuff on the shelves.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.