August 15, 2010

California ties seen as help and hindrance

Links to experienced dispensaries might ease the beginnings in Maine, but also raise concerns.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine has so far licensed six medical marijuana dispensaries.

click image to enlarge

Richard Lahrson of Berkeley, Calif., shows his doctor's recomendation and an identification card to Paul J. White before entering the Berkeley Patients Group clinic in Berkeley.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Five of them have direct connections to California's cannabis industry.

Some state officials are welcoming the experience and resources from the West Coast. The new arrivals should help Maine's experiment with dispensaries get off to a smooth start, they say.

Others, however, fear the California connections are a troubling way to begin.

Most of the concerns focus on Northeast Patients Group, which was granted the licenses to open dispensaries in or near Portland, Augusta, Thomaston and Bangor.

Northeast is an offshoot of Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley, Calif., one of the oldest and most successful dispensaries in that state.

Rebecca DeKeuster, former general manager at Berkeley, and Tim Schick, a Berkeley director and Maine native, first came east last winter to provide advice to Maine officials writing the guidelines for the new dispensary system.

The group did not play a role in organizing or financing last fall's referendum campaign that opened the door to dispensaries in Maine, according to state records and the leaders of that campaign.

DeKeuster moved to Augusta earlier this year and is leading the start-up venture in Maine with the help of a new Maine-based board of directors. Schick has helped launch the Maine operation but is remaining at Berkeley.

The financial ties between Northeast and Berkeley are still taking shape, representatives said.

Berkeley Patients Group provided a $300,000 line of credit to Northeast, along with a promise to help secure additional loans, according to filings with the state.

Northeast, meanwhile, will pay Berkeley a licensing fee for use of its business model and operating policies and will pay Berkeley for consulting services. Representatives of Berkeley and Northeast say the dollar amount of those contracts has not been settled.

The arrival of operators from California, and the potential for medical marijuana revenues to leave the state, is exactly what some Maine lawmakers hoped to avoid, said state Sen. Stanley Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.

He and others pushed for a requirement that Maine dispensaries be run by Maine residents, but the rule may now need to be tightened further so that people can't simply move here to qualify, Gerzofsky said.

The law now says officers and board members have to live in Maine at least 183 days a year, but there is no rule -- at least not yet -- about how long they have to be a Maine resident before they are awarded a license.

"I think a Mainer can grow a tomato as good as a Californian," Gerzofsky said.

Wendy Chapkis, a University of Southern Maine sociology professor who co-authored a book about California's medical marijuana movement, said Berkeley Patients Group is one of the most professional dispensary operators in California.

"On the other hand, I think it's a missed opportunity for Maine to figure it out for Maine," she said.

Catherine Cobb, head of licensing for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the West Coast experience, and resources, will help Maine.

"Regardless of where the investment is coming from, it's bringing capital into the state to create jobs and revenues," she said.

DeKeuster, the chief executive of Northeast, said Maine will ultimately be pleased with the care provided to patients and the benefits provided to the state economy. She said Northeast needs some help from Berkeley but will hire local contractors, too.

For instance, Northeast plans to use Berkeley's human resource policies and employee handbooks, DeKeuster said. Berkeley also has helped with some initial marketing and the Northeast group's website.

"A year from now, many of those concerns will have been alleviated," she said. "This is a Maine program for Maine patients."

Another licensed dispensary, Remedy Compassion Center, also has California roots, but has not generated the same kind of controversy.

Tim and Jennifer Smale plan to open their dispensary in the Lewiston and Auburn region. The couple also hopes to win a license for a York County dispensary. The state reopened the application process there after rejecting all six proposals filed in the first application round.

Jennifer Smale is a Yarmouth native and the couple has owned a home in Vienna for years.

Before moving back east earlier this year to seek a dispensary license, Tim Smale was general manager of CannBe, an Oakland, Calif.-based start-up consultant to medical marijuana dispensaries. Jennifer Smale helped run the company.

CannBe is a business arm of Harborside Treatment Center, an upscale and fast-growing dispensary in Oakland that is serving as Smale's primary business model for the Maine venture.

Smale, who has not hired CannBe to help him, said Maine is off to a good start because it is being careful to choose good, experienced dispensary operators.

"(Maine's) application process was, I think very stringent, and brought the professional level very high," he said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

 

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