Medical marijuana caregiver shops: Sweet Relief in Northport (Photos: 
Ethan Andrews)
Medical marijuana caregiver shops: Sweet Relief in Northport (Photos: Ethan Andrews)
“Storefronts themselves are a really new phenomenon.”

— David Heidrich, Maine Office of Marijuana Policy

April 20 fell on a Saturday this year. Paul McCarrier, a longtime marijuana advocate and owner of the Belfast medical cannabis shop Puffin Relief, ran special deals all week. He carries 144 products, from smokable buds and resins, or “dabs,” to vape cartridges and cannabis-infused chocolates, gummies and lollipops. A good number of them have ridiculous names carried over from when pot was all-the-way illegal. I visited a few days before the pot-coded 4/20 and left feeling that, in the history of Belfast, it’s possible that the phrase “banana hammock” was never spoken as many times in a single hour.

“The culture is definitely welcome in here, but this place is welcoming to everybody,” he said. “We’re just trying to be pretty straightforward. There’s really no airs about it. We’re not trying to be a pipe shop. We’re not trying to be a weed store. We’re a Maine store.” That day, he was giving out free caramels to patients. A young local guy with a beard asked, “Will this fuck me up real good?” Then he apologized for his language. “I’m a Mainer,” he said. McCarrier suggested he eat only a quarter of the caramel at a sitting.

In the future it might be said that these transitional years for marijuana in Maine were the good ones, a brief coming-out party for experienced local growers before they were consumed by big corporate ventures, when mom-and-pop shops thrived in their weird, hilarious and dead-earnest ways.

For now, caregivers are the apothecaries of medical marijuana, and they’re making it up as they go, bringing varying amounts of illicit marijuana culture out of the shadows and adopting, in measures, the tools of regular business.

Jake McClure, a caregiver in Jefferson, put a flashing sign outside his Route 17 shop Sensi Sensei advertising $5 grams. That’s a good price. The next day he was paid a visit by a state inspector who was not there to buy. The state knows who the caregivers are, but it doesn’t have a way of knowing which ones have shops. The flashing sign was literally a beacon. The inspector turned out not to know the law very well, So, McClure spent an hour explaining it to him. The inspector later asked if McClure would email the various legal points he had explained so he could share them with his boss. This was nothing new.

As one of the founders of Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, McClure testified regularly in Augusta about the medical benefits of marijuana. He used to have long hair and a thick beard until he realized the legislators looked afraid when he stepped up to the podium. During that time, he taught many of the current crop of caregivers how to grow, gave them plants and gave them loans to get started. One of them, now a successful grower, jokingly called him “Sensei,” Japanese for “teacher.” The other part of the shop’s name, “Sensi,” comes from “sensimilla” — from the Spanish for “seedless,” a requisite property of flower-bearing marijuana plants.

For his store, McClure took the idea and ran with it. The second-floor loft is decorated like a New Age dojo. A small gong hangs above the counter. A statue of Buddha sits on a shelf between a potted plant and a rack of cannabis lollipops. McClure has a couple of guitars that patients can play. When I went to interview him, he unplugged a large rock waterfall on the back wall, which he said was noisy that day, but he left the music playing: a dad-friendly mix of old hits, from Beck, Weezer, Stealers Wheel. A proposed law for retail marijuana businesses would require him to put bars on the windows of his shop. “Do I want to have bars on the windows of my little Zen den?” he said.

Running a medical marijuana shop comes with a host of cannabis-specific hassles — business expenses aren’t tax-deductible, banks won’t deal with you, landlords balk at harboring a pot shop, collectives are forbidden, a new seed-to-sale tracking system in the works is likely to rival the record-keeping for an adopted child or rods of plutonium. All of it comes with paperwork, time and expenses.

“It used to be the cool kids’ club,” he said. “It’s changed. It’s not as cool as it used to be, having to keep track of all these computer systems. What used to be a laid-back and chill thing is definitely more complicated now. It’s definitely less fun.”

McClure sometimes gets asked why, on top of all that, he’s teaching people who might eat into his own low-margin livelihood. But he doesn’t see it that way. Marijuana growers deployed a similar strategy of cooperation when weed was illegal. If you shared a coveted plant, it meant that if you ever lost a crop — to fire, blight or the police — you might be able to get it back.

“I’m not training my competition; I’m prepping a resistance,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to fight off Weedmart by myself.”

Weedmart, like its namesake, basically refers to any big business that can leverage economies of scale against small businesses, in this case local caregivers. Federal law still prohibits marijuana cultivation and sales, and that’s kept the serious money on the sidelines, but big corporations are laying the groundwork for an eventual move into the cannabis industry. Constellation Brands and Altria, owners of Corona beer and Marlboro cigarettes, respectively, each have invested more that $1 billion in cannabis companies in Canada, where the federal government has given marijuana a green light. Large companies have invested in some of the legal areas of cannabis cultivation in Maine in a way that suggests to McClure an easy flip to the recreational market when the time is right.

Weedmart might fall short of total dominance in midcoast Maine, where towns are generally supportive of local business and have even pushed big-box retailers away. But McClure figures a “Ganja General” — the weed equivalent of a dollar store — could swoop in and finish off the mom-and-pops. He predicts, without fanfare, that 90 percent of the small retail shops opened by caregivers will fold because they can’t compete.

There is counterevidence. The Morning Sentinel reported last month about a licensed caregiver in China, Maine, who caught the eye of town officials when he advertised in the windows of his retail shop on Route 3. The building was formerly a dollar store.

“Weedmart’s inevitable,” McClure said. “They’re coming. They’re here. The question is whether they’re going to get 90 percent of the market share or 100.”

John Lorenz is optimistic. He recently dropped an 18-year career as an art teacher to open Sweet Relief on Route 1 in Northport with his wife, Ploy. As a licensed caregiver, he had been growing in Morrill and serving a small number of patients. When the state bumped up the number of plants that caregivers could grow to 30, from six, they decided to make a go of it.

Even in the early stages of a new business, the period when every shopkeeper spends some amount of time wondering if customers will show up, Lorenz exudes the optimism of someone living the dream — not the adolescent boy dream of video game tester, or the undergrad boy dream of smoking pot for a living, but the capital A, capital D, American Dream, in which a young couple works hard and makes good. Ploy and Johnny are in early. Any gold diggers coming to Maine will have to catch up with them.

“The future is: the black market's gone,” John Lorenz said. “Stuff with no standards, Those days are basically over.”

A young guy with a free-range beard and red knit cap came through the door of the shop with two friends, each holding a puppy. Lorenz offered to make some recommendations, unless the man in the red hat knew what he wanted.

Red hat: “I’m more of an indica guy.”

Lorenz: “Like, very heady, or daytime?”

Red hat: “Very heady.” He volunteered that he gets migraines, and the heady stuff helps.

Lorenz: “I’d like to recommend the AK. Guy I don’t know. You won’t be let down by the AK-47.”

After a little more banter, the man walked out with an eighth of an ounce of AK-47 and a few buds of another strain called “Sweet Cheese” — caregivers are allowed to gift patients small amounts of cannabis, and many use the allowance to get the word out about new products. Sweet Relief carries Green Crack, OG Kush, Headband, Acapulco Gold and a handful of other strains. In conversation, Lorenz occasionally shows some of the casual enthusiasm of a stoner, but he’s quick to catch himself. Maine legalized recreational marijuana more than two years ago, but for medical caregivers, the therapeutic act of kicking back with a joint is still a topic to be handled gingerly.

Justin Olsen and Nancy Shaw were early to the retail caregiver game. They started growing medicinally around 2008 and later opened New World Organics in a building of medical and social service offices in Belfast. The building has the name of their landlord, “Wentworth,” across the front in large letters. Among the tenants are a primary care office and a day program for people with intellectual disabilities. New World Organics started in one small room sharing a side entrance with a substance abuse counselor and a massage therapist. Both moved out for reasons either related or unrelated to their new neighbor, and New World expanded to fill the space. They put out a sandwich board with their logo — an X design based on the New York hardcore logo. Inside, the layout resembles a retail shop. A wraparound counter is plastered in stickers. The merchandise is colorful. In another time or place, the glass display cases might have been stocked with skateboard wheels. They are preparing to move into a larger space in a freestanding office now under construction behind the Wentworth building. The building resembles a walk-in clinic. But from the outside, so does their current shop.

Olsen described other medical marijuana stores he’s seen: tiny boutiques with nice artwork and an enviable logo-and-sign game, minimalist spaces inspired by the Apple Store — “Everybody’s wearing the same color shirt. They walk you around the products and talk to you about them.” There’s no playbook, he said, which is cool. But he also worries about weed culture dying. “Canada went hard on the legalization,” he said. “Everything went to black-and-white packaging, and it’s dumbed down. It’s not fun anymore.”

In the early days of medical marijuana, the lore goes, lots of young people came down with bad backs. But the caregivers I interviewed cringed at the idea that medical shops are a workaround for recreational use. Most reported having older patients, on balance. McClure said at least half of his patients are women over 55, though he guessed this was more a sign of self-selection — people trusted by doctors — than a random cross-sampling of all medical marijuana users.

McCarrier said some patients who don’t identify with weed culture have a harder time convincing themselves to walk through the door. Meanwhile, the ambiguities of legalization for recreational use have prompted longtime underground smokers to bluster into his shop ready to buy weed on whatever terms.

How much of the counterculture survives, or should survive, legalization remains to be seen. Like other markets, it will probably depend on what people want.

Two weeks after I interviewed Lorenz at Sweet Relief, I dropped by again and asked him about weed culture. Is it in danger? Was it ever good? He described a woman who had come by the shop since the last time I was there. Older, well-dressed. “Elegant grandma.” She announced that she’d been diagnosed with M.S. in her 20s. After decades of the best that the pharmaceutical industry had to offer, she found cannabis and got better results.

“Your typical patient is more of a patient than most people would think,” Lorenz said.

I asked again about weed culture. You know, stoner culture. Lorenz did. He suggested an image: a poster of Bob Marley smoking a big joint, or smoking lots of joints, maybe. “That’s cool for me; but that’s not what she wants,” he said, meaning the woman with M.S.

“The future here isn’t going to be like out West — a big marijuana leaf and a canoe on the roof that billows steam and looks like a joint. The future here is green crosses and cleanliness.” Good local products, delivered respectably and all that.

“And being hip,” he said, “which could be Bob Marley on the wall.”