Donald Gardner, an independent medical marijuana provider in Knox County, told state officials that if the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy approves proposed changes to the state’s program, he’ll “be in the unemployment line.”
“It’ll be the end of my business, it’s that simple,” he said, “and I won’t be the only one.”
Gardner was just one of dozens of medical marijuana providers, known in the industry as caregivers, and their customers who provided over seven hours of public testimony Monday against proposed rule changes that would add more regulations.
Speakers, overwhelmingly opposed to the rule, outlined their concerns that the industry would not survive the changes and called on regulators to revisit the rulemaking process with providers and customers at the table.
In January, the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy released a preliminary draft of rule changes to the medical program that officials said were “meant to align the program with state law.”
The changes immediately drew the ire of many in the medical marijuana community who accused the department of trying to stamp out the flourishing medical cannabis market by forcing it to align with the more heavily regulated recreational market.
Earlier this month, the office released an updated proposal with considerable edits, but buyers and sellers are not convinced it’s enough.
Among other changes, the updated rules will require all registered medical cannabis caregivers, dispensaries and manufacturing facilities to implement a “seed-to-sale” or “track-and-trace” system, currently used in the adult-use program.
That would require providers to track all marijuana plants or harvested marijuana daily from “immature plant” to point of sale or disposal.
David Heidrich, spokesperson for the Office of Marijuana Policy, has said tracking ensures a closed-loop system, preventing any illicit product from getting into the legal market and preventing any legal product from entering the illicit market.
However, many in the industry fear such a system would have the opposite effect, and would instead increase the costs of operating for caregivers, driving some out of business and skyrocketing the cost of cannabis for those who are able to stay afloat. That, some said, would ultimately direct customers and providers alike to the black market.
“People will continue to get their cannabis, even if they’re being forced to get it on the street,” Paul McCarrier, president of advocacy group Legalize Maine, told officials. “People cannot afford the price increases these (rules) will bring.”
The proposed rule also requires strict security measures, including 24-hour camera surveillance and an alarm system for every provider. Surveillance data must be stored for 30 days.
Caregivers worry the requirements, security systems, alarms, track-and-trace and other new rules would be too expensive for them to survive.
Because marijuana is still federally illegal, it is difficult for caregivers to get loans or funding unless going through a private lender and dealing with higher interest rates, said caregiver Jeffrey Reynolds.
The new rules and associated costs would only compound the existing financial burdens of the industry and would “put smaller people like me out of business before we can really take off,” Reynolds said.
“The sheer cost alone of the seed-to-sale tracking, in addition to the new security requirements, are enough to literally bankrupt my business,” said Gardner, the Knox county caregiver. “I’m genuinely petrified of these new changes.”
The Office of Marijuana Policy will complete a fiscal impact study before the rule changes take effect, but the details need to be worked out before the study can begin, officials said.
The state’s medical marijuana program, which has more than 3,000 registered caregivers and eight dispensaries, garnered roughly $266 million in sales last year, making cannabis Maine’s most valuable crop.
Caregivers expected to “get high fives,” for this, caregiver Kellie Julia said, but instead, the proposed rule feels like “a slap in the face.”
Many on Monday questioned the timing of the proposal, criticizing the office for introducing rules that would be “devastating for the local craft community” in the middle of a pandemic, and they asked officials to revisit the rules with more stakeholders, including caregivers and customers at the table.
“Why would you believe Mainers can afford this right now?” asked Mark Barnett, caregiver and founder of the Maine Craft Cannabis Association. “Now that we have legal adult-use sales, to say that larger companies see this (program) as a threat to their profits is an understatement. Just because the adult-use market might struggle to compete with a truly homegrown market is not reason to double down on public policy mistakes.”
If rules can be implemented now, they can be implemented later with the medical community involved in the process, speaker Joanne Davis said in her testimony.
“This is not the time to put people out of business,” she said, urging officials to go back to the drawing board. “Take the time, do it right.”
The office is accepting written comments through April 1 on the proposed changes.