Smoke Local

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  February 16, 2011

And to be sure, those types of business relationships exist — are being fostered, even — under the new law. Late last year, the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, a trade association with approximately 110 members, was formed to connect caregivers with patients and each other. Each caregiver is allowed to serve and grow for up to five patients; they pay a $300 annual fee per patient to the state and are subject to DHHS inspection at any time.

Right now, the only way for qualified patients — about 860 of whom have applied for ID cards so far, according to DHHS medical marijuana program manager John Thiele — to get medical marijuana is through one of those caregivers, or to grow their own. But that will change this year, with the grand openings of eight cannabis dispensaries located around the state.

Building on the marijuana-dispensary model used in five other states including California, but crafting a more tightly regulated system here, DHHS decided that each of the state's eight "public health districts" would be served by one non-profit cannabis dispensary. Twenty-five applications were submitted, and six dispensaries, run by three non-profit corporations, were chosen. (The evaluation process in York and Hancock had to go into a second round because the original applications didn't hit the mark; dispensaries have now been selected there too.)

The approved dispensaries, which will serve as health-care centers to all ID-card-holding patients, providing medical marijuana that can be smoked, vaporized, eaten, ingested via tincture, or rubbed on as lotion, are aiming to open this spring and summer. (The one in Portland will be near the intersection of St. John and Congress streets).

And that's when we'll see the big bucks. Early estimates suggest that these dispensaries — which can cultivate for an unlimited number of patients — will charge between $300 and $375 per ounce. The Remedy Compassion Center, for example, which will be located in Wilton, estimated in their application that they would net more than $128,000 in their first full fiscal year, and more than twice that in their second full year of operation. The Northeast Patients group estimates close to $286,000 in their first year and more than $600,000 in their second — for the Cumberland County dispensary alone.

The state legislature hopes to see more than $400,000 in five-percent sales-tax revenue from the marijuana dispensaries in their first full year of operation (starting this summer), and hundreds of thousands more after that. This would represent a small piece of the state's $5 billion tax revenue (about one billion of which is derived from sales tax). By comparison, California tax collectors estimate that pot dispensaries bring in between $50 million and $100 million in (7.5 percent) sales taxes to that state's economy.

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Davids vs. Goliaths

No one claims that dispensaries and individual caregivers are mutually exclusive.

"Maine's law . . . offers patients a great deal of choice," says DeKeuster, of Northeast Patients Group. "Some patients may prefer to grow their own, or use a caregiver; others may find that dispensaries are a convenient and familiar way to get their medicine, similar to a pharmacy."

But representatives of each model claim that theirs offers unique benefits. For example, dispensary proponents point out that all of their medicine must be cultivated and processed on-site — and Thiele, of the DHHS, explains why.

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