"Common Sensi" is our new series covering the local impact of a national cannabis revolution.
In his Oxford shirts and slacks, Gary still looks like the network engineer he used to be. But his current occupation is far from average. He lives in Maine with his wife, two older children, and nearly three dozen cannabis plants.
Gary is one of hundreds of medical-marijuana caregivers registered in his state, legally permitted to cultivate cannabis and sell it to up to five patients. As Massachusetts joins Maine and 16 other states in legalizing medical marijuana, there's much speculation about how our Department of Public Health will regulate dispensaries. But caregiver crops like the one in Gary's basement will be flowering throughout the Commonwealth by DPH's May 1 deadline.
Gary asked me not to publish his last name. He says he keeps his business on the DL, partly because of the social stigma tied to growing and selling marijuana, but primarily out of fear of being robbed.
"It's completely normal and legal [on a state level], but it's still a dark art," he says. "I still sing in the choir at church," he adds, "but my church doesn't know what I do."
Because he can't advertise directly, Gary found his patients through an online network called the Compassionate Caregivers of Maine, a nonprofit organization that helps medical-marijuana patients connect with caregivers. The service plays a crucial role in a state where medical marijuana is legal but dispensaries are limited, a situation Massachusetts medical-marijuana patients will soon find themselves in.
That's why last week, the CCM launched the Compassionate Caregivers of Massachusetts website, massmedmarijuana.com, which mirrors the Maine network's online model in anticipation of our medical-marijuana measure going into effect on January 1.
Gary says he's built relationships with all of his patients and spends at least a half hour with each of them every week. With caregiving, Gary offers personal and discreet service he says the dispensary business model might struggle to provide.
But Brian Vicente, a lawyer who helped write Colorado's new legalization amendment and whose firm recently opened a Massachusetts office, cautions Bay Staters thinking about caregiving as a sustainable business model.
"If your idea is to have you and five friends live in a house and grow a bunch of marijuana as caregivers, frankly, that is probably going to be legal come January 1," Vicente explained to a young man who'd asked about caregiver co-ops during a public seminar in late November.
Vicente points out that communities could seriously restrict caregiving in the process of writing zoning regulations. "My prediction . . . is local communities are gonna crack down on that."
Aaron Smith, an executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, explains how dispensaries aid a widespread effort to professionalize the public's perception of cannabis in ways caregiving can't. Noting how the commercial industry comes out of a criminal market, Smith says patients prefer to buy medicinal marijuana in a retail environment.
"That's where patients know they can get quality medicine," he says.
On the other hand, Gary's patients range from a military veteran missing part of his leg to a wealthy sales professional managing hepatitis — someone Gary says would never want to be seen in a dispensary.