Friday, March 7, 2014
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A York County caregiver named Frank displays buds from plants grown for use as medical marijuana. Caregivers also make brownies, chocolates and other pot products for patients.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
Paul McCarrier of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine says his industry has created hundreds of jobs.
Kennebec Journal File Photo
President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have made recent policy statements that the federal government would, for the most part, not pursue prosecutions in states where medical marijuana is legal or in states that have made small amounts of marijuana legal for recreational purposes. Washington state and Colorado recently approved limited legalization of marijuana.
But it's unclear whether caregivers will reap any benefits from the clarified federal policy.
Maine has been targeted by marijuana activists as one of the states where recreational marijuana use could be put before voters in a statewide referendum within the next few years.
"It's not a question of 'if,' it's a question of 'when,'" DeKeuster said.
How recreational legalization would affect the medical marijuana business is unknown, and much depends on how the state would regulate cultivation and sale for recreational use. Would many patients no longer bother with acquiring a medical marijuana prescription if they could purchase small amounts legally? Would the state create rules to protect the "mom and pop" caregivers, or would large companies dominate the sale of recreational marijuana?
Frank and Michele said that if Maine votes to legalize recreational use of marijuana, they're considering opening a storefront, although they're wary of federal intervention.
McCarrier said that on the state level, the next task for supporters of medical marijuana is persuading the state to permit caregivers to serve more patients, perhaps 10 instead of five, or an unlimited number. Many patients do not use the full 2.5 ounces per 15 days that the state permits, so the flexibility of being able to care for more patients would allow the caregivers to better match the marijuana being produced with patients' needs, he said.
If patients do not use the full amount, the caregivers often end up with more marijuana than can be legally sold. They end up having to give it away to patients, which is legal but does nothing to help their bottom line, McCarrier said.
STATE OVERSIGHT IS MINIMAL
While concerns about federal prosecution shadow caregivers, state oversight of their work is minimal.
Marietta D'Agostino, medical marijuana program manager for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the state does not currently inspect caregiver operations, and doesn't know if they are following state rules. The state also does not require patients to register. D'Agostino said the state has no way of truly knowing whether the products being sold to patients are safe, and that's a concern.
McCarrier said that although it's true there's no direct oversight, caregivers are kept in check by the knowledge that local police can check on their business at any time. He said if asked, they have to provide police with state approval records, and forms that patients fill out, as proof they have a legitimate medical marijuana business.
Supply-and-demand issues affect medical marijuana caregivers, just like any other enterprise.
Caregivers also have to deal with price changes in the cost of electricity, which McCarrier said can run as much as $5,000 a year for light and heat. Some grow the marijuana plants outside, which is less expensive, but also less certain to produce a good crop because of fluctuations in the weather.
Caregivers charge from about $175 to $250 an ounce for marijuana, but there's no telling whether those prices will hold steady, McCarrier said. That will depend on how much demand there is from patients, and how many caregivers enter the market.
He said the price per ounce has already declined since the caregiving industry developed.
Feuer, the CEO at the Falmouth doctor's office, said the stigma of medical marijuana is also receding, which may lead to a large influx of caregivers.
"Everyone is seeing how medical marijuana became legal, and seeing how it's become a larger industry, and people want to be a part of it," said Feuer, whose clinic serves "thousands" of patients. Patient demand is also increasing, he said.
For Igor Rakuz, owner of Maine Indoor Garden Supply in Windham, which sells hydroponic materials that can be used to grow marijuana plants indoors, business is going well. But since 2010 there's been fierce competition to sell the materials to caregivers, he said.
Rakuz said he could complain about his competitors, and he often does, but at the end of the day he's able to earn a living.
"Hey, I'm a capitalist as much as the next guy," he said. "It's bringing a lot of jobs to Maine."
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:
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Frank and Michele show how their business of providing marijuana and byproducts to their legally approved patients works. Here, Michele mixes powdered cannabis with fine chocolate to make chocolate candies.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer