The Mainers love their freewheeling medical marijuana market. The state does not know what to do with it.

Maine marijuana officials and law enforcement officials have repeatedly lobbied for tougher rules on the freewheeling industry, saying its lack of testing, tracking and labeling makes patients vulnerable to contaminated cannabis and allows producers to easily divert inventory through the back door.

However, the state’s thousands of tiny local medical operators and their legislative allies have so far blocked all attempts to act on these concerns, recently passing legislation requiring Maine’s Office of Cannabis Policy to execute any regulatory changes by the State House. .

Now, frustrated agency regulators are going back to the drawing board for the third time in two years, announcing this week that they will launch a statewide “listening tour” to gather feedback before to embark on a new attempt to write new rules on medical marijuana.

“When we tell regulators in other states that we have tests for [recreational] but not medical, you get a weird look,” said Maine Potty Czar Erik Gundersen. “It’s a gray and strange space to be in. But we understand the fear and apprehension of change, and we also want a thriving medical program that allows operators to continue doing what they do.”

At stake in the fight is one of the most unusual legal marijuana markets in the country, which is dominated not by investor-backed dispensaries, but by so-called caregivers: small grow operations and informal manufacturing companies that were originally intended to supply medical cannabis to only a handful of patients nearby.

While caregivers in Massachusetts and most other states aren’t allowed to make a profit and typically work with a few critically ill patients they know personally, many of Maine’s more than 2,800 caregivers have evolved over the course of several statutory changes to pseudo-dispensaries that stand alongside a much smaller number of more traditionally regulated retailers selling both medical and recreational marijuana.

State law allows caregivers to accept out-of-state medical marijuana cards, and the storefronts they were allowed to open starting in 2018 have quickly become popular with patients. of New England for their popular atmosphere, their very low prices and their wide variety of artisanal products. . As a result, business boomed, with marijuana overtaking potatoes and blueberries as Maine’s most valuable crop.

Caregivers and their supporters fiercely defend the sector, saying it embodies Maine’s locavore, artisanal ethos and is a counterpoint to the unnecessary overregulation of cannabis in most other states.

Recent laws forcing regulators to back down were “a complete repudiation of the desire to regulate this industry as if we were a group of dangerous and evil drug traffickers who can be swept under the rug,” Alysia said. Melnick, attorney for the Maine Craft Cannabis Association. “The state can’t take our tax money and all the jobs we create and then sell us to big corporations out of state – we weren’t going to accept that.”

Larger business operators in Maine’s newer, more regulated recreational sector are less impressed. They applauded efforts to bring caregivers to heel, arguing that the disparity in regulations endangers the public and unfairly eats away at their businesses, including their outlets in neighboring states such as Massachusetts.

This leaves the regulators stuck in the middle. Gundersen told the Globe in an interview that he hoped a compromise could still emerge, although he insists that lab testing and product tracking are the backbone of any well-run marijuana market.

A December study commissioned by the Maine Office of Cannabis Policy suggests that despite the turmoil, the state has eroded more of its illicit cannabis market than most, with 64% of all cannabis consumed coming from a legal source.

For Gundersen, this proves that it is possible for marijuana companies to succeed while complying with mandatory testing and tracking. He noted that most recreation operators in Maine today are locals who got their start as caregivers, defying fears that tougher rules and a federal court ruling overturning a residency requirement would leave largest out-of-state companies dominate the space.

Caregivers drew the opposite conclusion, saying the report shows an affordable, convenient and lightly regulated industry with low upfront costs for entrepreneurs is the shortest path to eradicating unlicensed sales.

“Competitive legal operations are the most effective way to combat illegal drug sales and secure the cannabis trade in our communities,” said Matt Hawes, founder of cannabis company Novel Beverage Co. and Chief Maine Cannabis Industry Association. “Policymakers must support those who have chosen the legal but harder path in our battle for market share. . . We are on the same team.

Similarly, many caregivers argue that market forces will eventually resolve the testing debate as more patients ask caregivers to provide lab results.

“Consumers must demand whatever changes they want through purchasing power,” said Calvin Akers, co-founder of the Wisely Hash Factory at Sanford, a medical concentrate supplier that voluntarily tests its products. . “I’m not opposed to regulation at all, but the way [the state] wants to implement this would create an unsustainable financial burden.

Akers said a one-size-fits-all approach is a mistake in Maine, with its mix of urban and extremely rural areas. Some communities, for example, do not have immediate access to the Internet, which means that the requirement to install security cameras that broadcast images directly to government inspectors could require the installation of new utility lines. expensive. Making these operations more remote at prohibitive cost would only drive patients and caregivers underground, he argued, while breaking the personal and community touch the market is known for.

“If we had the regulatory structure and the cost of Massachusetts, 90% of these popular homemade marijuana brands wouldn’t exist,” he said. “Maine is a place where you don’t need a lot of money to pursue a dream – you can create generational wealth through hard work. I don’t want to see people shut out of this opportunity.

Again, Akers and others conceded that the uncertainty created by repeated attempts to start and stop stricter regulation is itself beginning to take its toll. For example, a number of caregivers who started buying plant identification tags and inventory monitoring software in anticipation of a new product tracking requirement found themselves short of thousands of dollars when the State suspended regulation, then switched to another provider.

This is causing some operators to ponder acceptable trade-offs as the state presses the reset button on its rule-making process again.

“To be honest, there should probably be some level of regulation that extends beyond what is currently enforced in the medical curriculum, but is well below what is currently enforced in the [recreational] market,” Hawes said. “We want a uniform but right-sized approach that serves as a model.”

Dan Adams can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.

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