AUGUSTA — Medical marijuana dispensaries and caregivers are quietly lobbying state lawmakers to allow them to sell pot to recreational users before retail cannabis stores open in Maine next year.

Later this legislative session, lawmakers are likely to consider bills that could give segments of Maine’s well-established medical marijuana industry a potentially lucrative toehold in the recreational market. Supporters hope that Maine will follow the lead of states such as Colorado and Oregon, which allowed medical marijuana businesses to offer “early sales” of cannabis products to adults while policymakers worked out the details of licensing new businesses catering to recreational users.

But questions about who would qualify to participate in the temporary “early sales” marketplace could fan long-standing tensions between the few large, tightly regulated dispensaries in Maine and the state’s thousands of small, individual “caregiver” suppliers of medical marijuana.

“It has to be an equal playing field,” said Paul McCarrier, the president of Legalize Maine. He wants to ensure that caregivers – not just dispensaries – have an opportunity to participate.

Marijuana became legal for adults age 21 and over in Maine on Jan. 30. But the state is not required to begin accepting applications for retail marijuana sales licenses until February 2018 in order to give agencies and lawmakers time to draft rules and enforcement policies.

That has created a legal quandary for recreational users who can possess and use marijuana but still have nowhere to buy it legally. Their only options are to grow it themselves – adults can possess up to six flowering plants – or turn to the illegal black market. Adults also can “gift” marijuana to other adults in Maine.

David Boyer of the Maine chapter of the Marijuana Policy Project said an “early sales” marketplace is desperately needed and would help steer people away from the black market.

“People ask me all of the time how they can get marijuana, and I have to say, ‘You have to go get a medical marijuana card to buy it legally,’ ” Boyer said.

Supporters of an early sales market contend it also would generate much-needed tax revenue that could be used to help cover the costs of crafting the rules on licensing marijuana businesses.

Maine first legalized medical marijuana in 1999 and then significantly expanded the program a decade later by creating a regulated system of dispensaries and caregivers.

The state currently has eight dispensaries licensed to grow and sell marijuana on a large scale. And there are an estimated 3,200 caregivers who can grow and sell marijuana for up to five “qualifying patients” at a time.

Two bills propose allowing medical marijuana suppliers to step into the early sales marketplace.

Both of the bills, L.D. 1448 and L.D. 1491, would allow dispensaries to sell cannabis products to Mainers who are 21 and over. Caregivers also could sell any excess cannabis products not needed for their patients to dispensaries, but they could not sell directly to recreational users. L.D. 1448 is sponsored by Rep. Matthew Harrington, R-Sanford, while L.D. 1491 is sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee.

A concept draft version of a third bill, L.D. 1499, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, also appears to only allow dispensaries to obtain “provisional licenses” to sell cannabis prior to the establishment of retail shops.

Maine’s network of dispensaries and caregivers have had an uneasy and oftentimes distrustful relationship going back nearly a decade.

Dispensaries are more tightly regulated than caregivers – subject to stringent inspections, quality control and security requirements – and are capped, by law, at eight operations statewide. In comparison, there is no cap on personal caregivers, whose numbers have swelled dramatically during the past two years as the state moved toward recreational legalization. Some caregivers, meanwhile, regard the much-larger dispensaries as representing a corporate culture intent on monopolizing the potentially lucrative cannabis market.

A representative for the state’s largest dispensary, Wellness Connection, could not be reached for comment Monday. But Boyer said he believes any early sales program should be “done equitably,” in part by allowing caregivers with a proven track record to apply to become dispensaries. And McCarrier, of Legalize Maine, said dispensaries should not be allowed to “stifle the competition” and that caregivers who are paying sales tax and are willing to be inspected should be given an opportunity to open retail store fronts.

“Why can’t ‘craft cannabis’ have access to the recreational market?” asked McCarrier, referring to small-scale growers.

Maine won’t be treading new ground if it allows medical marijuana businesses to get into the recreational marketplace first. Both Colorado and Oregon gave preference to established medical marijuana businesses, and Nevada plans to begin allowing medical marijuana shops to sell to the recreational markets this July, six months before retail shops open.

Lawmakers on the Maine Legislature’s Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee also are debating whether individuals involved in the state’s medical marijuana industry should be given preference when regular retail sales licensing begins next year.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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