"Having dispensaries grow their own cuts out the problem of people walking in with bags of marijuana to sell to the dispensary that may contain pesticides, mold, mildew and heavy metals," Thiele says. "There will be more consistency . . . in products grown by dispensaries due to state oversight and quality control."
He's not accusing caregivers of having inferior product, but acknowledging the challenge of overseeing hundreds of individual caregiving operations, each growing no more than six plants per patient.
Dispensary owners cite their ability to diversify as one advantage.
"Beside growing long-time favorite strains and the latest high-quality genetics, we are cultivating strains that are especially effective in treating specific pains and ailments," says Timothy Smale, president and chief executive officer of the Remedy Compassion Center, which is on schedule to open this spring in Wilton, off Route 2 in Western Maine. "We have the capacity for continuous harvests of a variety of plants," he says in an e-mail interview with the Phoenix. "This is very important because patients need a reliable source of the particular strain they have found to be most effective for them. It is challenging for most small growers to offer a reliable supply because of space and plant count limitations."
But just as specialty farmers will highlight the benefits of rare seeds and cuttings that have been passed down through generations, caregivers will point to plants that are unique to Maine.
"There's been a lot of marijuana cultivation going on in Maine for the past 50 years," says Jake, a caregiver in Washington County who wants to keep his identity private for security reasons. ("I owe it to my patients not to have that information be public," he says.) "There are heirloom strains." If a strain is found to have high medicinal value, it's shared among caregivers, he says.
To that end, Leavitt believes that the caregiver network is in keeping with Maine values — those that celebrate farmers' markets and community supported agriculture.
"People are recognizing the value of keeping [agriculture] at a small-scale level and finding ways to make that economically sustainable," Leavitt says.
"We are going full-steam-ahead to make the model . . . non-corporate," he adds, which means pushing for Maine to "take steps to prevent the expansion of the dispensary model, and large Wal-Mart style grow stores or grow facilities . . . [There's] no reason marijuana should go the route of everything else in this country — commodified and available to the highest bidder."
But dispensary folks bristle at the big-box implication. Both Remedy Compassion Center and Northeast Patients Group, despite having ties to California, claim to be invested in creating a sense of local community (indeed, both non-profits factor charitable giving into their business plans). Not to mention that both corporations are run by people who either use medical marijuana themselves or have close ties to someone who does or did. In other words, these are not charlatans from afar, come to capitalize on Maine's pot-smoking patients.
"We provide a place where patients can feel as safe and comfortable buying medical marijuana as they would picking up a prescription at their local pharmacy and a delivery service no different than a florist," Smale says. "It's a place where patients feel cared for, and learn new ways to enjoy a better quality of life. I don't think that's anyone's idea of 'corporate.'"