A group of young servicemen in their formal blue dress uniforms were filing into the Holiday Inn By the Bay in Portland early in the evening Saturday, November 10, for the annual United States Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

As they marched toward the ballroom, a slightly skunky scent wafted into the lobby. The group stopped and looked around quizzically.

"Um...who brought the weed?" said one of the Marines finally.

Turns out, that same night the hotel was also hosting Home Grown Maine, the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine's second annual trade show, billed as the largest medical marijuana trade show in New England. Just downstairs from the Marine Birthday Ball, the Belfast-based 220s blasted out some Pink Floyd, while medical marijuana patients and pot advocates wandered from table to table checking out the wares - including handblown pipes and bongs, vaporizers, scentless pouches, and hydroponic growing supplies. Licensed growers displayed jars of high-grade strains of pot with names like Afghan Kush, Pandora's Cheese, and Chernobyl. Groups of onlookers carefully inspected large green, purple and orange buds speckled with crystals.

A few floors up in the hotel, a husky, bearded man in a tie-dyed shirt was in front of a room checking IDs and prescriptions, while inside registered patients were puffing away at tables using smokeless vaporizers. No one was anxiously looking out for the cops - it was all at least pretty much legal under current Maine law (though not federal law), now that marijuana can be recommended to treat certain ailments, including glaucoma, cancer, Crohn's disease, HIV-related illnesses, chronic pain, seizures and severe nausea.

Derek Tarbox, 29, of Standish was looking over a display of burlap sacks filled with Medicinal Mix, a compost popular with local pot growers. Tarbox says his 5-year-old son has a terminal illness and he is researching whether medical marijuana can be used to treat his pain.

"We give our kid pain pills that adults take," says Tarbox. "I shouldn't be giving my 5-year-old hard narcotics. These conventions are bringing all of the people from the state of Maine together. Everybody's coming out of the closet and everybody's finally allowed to come together and see all of the new products that are available."

G.W. Martin, 34, a tall, burly Montville farmer, says the new law has helped him diversify his farm. Up on Hogback Mountain where he lives with his wife and three children, Martin says he likes to keep it simple. There's no electricity or running water, but there's an outhouse, which he says composts some "wicked raspberries."

In addition to wood, meat and vegetables, Martin produces Medicinal Mix and builds grow houses for other cultivators. As a licensed caregiver, he can also supplement his family's income with the sale of medical marijuana, which he grows in a wood-heated greenhouse. Recently, Martin has come out publicly in an attempt to add some legitimacy to an agricultural commodity that has long been the number-one cash crop in Maine (over apples, hay and potatoes), albeit underground.

"Growing up in central Waldo County, unless you're very sheltered, you're going to learn about growing marijuana," says Martin in a thick Maine drawl. "More than half my friends and their families grew marijuana to pay their expenses, pay their bills, pay their rising property taxes. But the days of growing 100 plants out in the woods and hiding from the cops and planes ... those days are over, man. Plus I'm getting work for myself and other folks that help me out on the farm. We haven't had something like this in rural Maine in a while." He chuckles and points to a sack of compost. "Now I dare to go out and say, 'This dirt is for growing pot! And I know it works! We've got all kinds of experience - the shit works!'"

Political Shifts

With the jam music, belly dancers and some eccentrically dressed attendees, last November's Home Grown Maine trade show felt a lot more like a subcultural soiree than a medical conference. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the trade show is evidence of how far marijuana has come from its illegal status to accepted medical treatment.

The shift in Mainers' view of marijuana has been growing for decades, and it has been a bipartisan shift.

Speaking at the Home Grown show, former state Senator Joe Brannigan (D-Portland) recalled co-sponsoring conservative Republican Rep. Porter Leighton's (R-Harrison) medical marijuana bill in 1980, after the spouse of a former legislator found relief from his cancer with cannabis. That bill passed, but never made it into law due to an aggressive federal drug policy at the time. But by the 1990s a wave of state initiatives - encouraged by studies finding marijuana could provide pain relief, control nausea and vomiting, stimulate appetite, and treat a range of other conditions - challenged the federal law.

In 1999, Maine voters approved a citizen referendum that allowed doctors to recommend cannabis to patients, but not legally prescribe it. Ten years later, another citizen initiative passed and set up a licensing system to grow and sell marijuana either through small, registered growers called "caregivers" or through one of eight not-for-profit marijuana dispensaries geographically dispersed throughout the state.

The Dispensary Model

Thomaston's Wellness Connection of Maine, one franchise in a chain of four statewide dispensaries, is a small, nondescript storefront on the Route 1 strip next to a Chinese take-out. Patients must hit a buzzer, then show a valid i.d. and patient card in order to be let into the main waiting room. Soft New Age music provides a calming atmosphere, while a sweet, yet pungent aroma hangs in the air of the warmly lit space. First-time patients are given a stack of documents including information about the dispensary, various methods of ingestion, warnings about abuse and addiction, and state laws concerning medical marijuana. An attendant advises patients about the two main types of marijuana, indica and sativa, and what kind of effects to expect from them. For instance, indica strains are more likely to relax the body, acting as a sedative. Sativas are generally more stimulative. Each patient is given a tracking sheet to record the effects of their prescribed strain and decide which one works the best. Wellness Connection offers up to nine strains of marijuana, some of which are grown at the location, which sell anywhere from $120 to $300 an ounce.

Patients can choose from a variety of methods to ingest THC, the active chemical in marijuana. They can smoke the dried flower, which is the most common method, take the concentrated THC in a tincture or lozenge, rub it into the skin as a topical salve, or eat it in a baked good. For Thanksgiving, the Wellness Connection featured a recipe on their website for turkey stuffing using marijuana butter.

"A lot of cancer patients come in here going through chemotherapy, looking for help with the pain and nausea," says Susan Gay, an employee at Wellness Connection. "In this area there are also a lot of fishermen who have damaged their bodies doing that really hard work and just live with chronic pain. In order to stay away from the opiates, this is a viable option for them."

Like some dispensaries on the West Coast, Wellness Connection plans to offer alternative healing treatments like acupuncture, massage, and even vouchers for personal counseling and dental care to its members. The group has also launched a full retail line, including vaporizers, pipes, books and herbal supplements. Unlike a traditional pharmacy, dispensaries do not require employees to have a special certification for handling the medicine. Executive Director Becky DeKeuster, a former teacher, says the best employees are often teachers and food-service workers, because they have strong interpersonal skills. All of the training in growing, handling and manufacturing the medicine happens on the job.

Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine

Prior to passage of the 2009 citizens' initiative, only a patient's family member could grow marijuana, and they could still face prosecution given Maine's previously murky laws regarding the plant. The 2009 initiative set up a clearer legal framework for patients and family members and it also set up a licensing system for third-party caregivers to grow and sell the drug to qualified patients. For prospective caregivers, this simply requires filling out some paperwork, getting a criminal history background check done, and having an enclosed, locked facility in which to grow the plants.

As a licensed caregiver, Paul McCarrier, 28, of Thorndike, is permitted by state law to possess up to six blossoming cannabis plants for each of his five patients. McCarrier, who is also a patient, grows his plants in a small greenhouse and sells it in dried form for around $250 an ounce. Since he doesn't have a state-licensed kitchen he can't sell processed marijuana products, like baked goods and tinctures, unless he makes it with the patient in their own kitchen. As with a dispensary, new patients require an i.d. and certification, and the paperwork is filed with DHHS for approval. Like dispensaries, caregivers are only allowed to sell 2.5 ounces of the dried herb to patients every 15 days.

"The smaller caregivers really work to focus on what the patients need by developing different strains, by making sure that they have a supplier that works for them," says McCarrier. "Generally it's a lot higher quality medication because it's grown in a smaller setting."

Economic Driver

"This is not just about patients," said Rep. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea) after accepting an award for her advocacy of medical marijuana at Home Grown Maine last November. "This is about small industry. This is about an economic driver, bringing jobs into communities, putting people to work, supporting your local agricultural business."

Rep. Sanderson noted that Maine's over 700 registered caregivers were not mentioned in the then most recent jobs report, showing a net gain of 7,400 private-sector jobs in Maine. There is no official data about how much the typical caregiver makes, but McCarrier says he earns around $600 a week. He says his product is often potent enough that his patients don't need as much.

"It depends on what kind of business model you're running," says McCarrier. "Some people like to ride the edge of regulation, so they're working this as a profit-driven model."

According to those interviewed, a grower can earn anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 a year. Maine Wellness Connection starts employees at $12 an hour with benefits. There's also a whole economic infrastructure, of pipe sellers, grow suppliers, pest control specialists, and even marijuana grower education programs and apprenticeships, that supports the industry. It's unknown how much the new law has added to the local economy, but with growers paying income taxes along with a five-percent state sales tax on the drug and a $300 per patient fee, the state is finally getting its cut.

Dispensaries vs. Caregivers: A Difference in Philosophy

As the legislative liaison for the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, a statewide network to connect qualified patients with caregivers, Paul McCarrier, with his long hair and shaggy beard, has been a familiar face in Augusta, lobbying for laws that allow easier access for patients to obtain their medicine and small farmers to grow it. This has led to some tension between dispensaries and caregivers, which exploded last August at a public hearing in Augusta over new rules for growing outdoor plants. Proposed rules developed by the Department of Health and Human Services for outdoor growing, requiring eight-foot-high fences and remote tracking censors, are considered cost-prohibitive by many patients and caregivers. Because of the backlash, those requirements were scaled back in the final rules released at the end of December. Nevertheless, there is a fear among the caregiver population that state regulatory policy will encourage big businesses and dispensaries to dominate the market, while pushing the small farmers out and forcing patients to buy their medicine at inflated prices.

"If there are tensions, that's a shame," says Becky DeKeuster. "From a movement standpoint, you want to at least be pulling the rope in the same direction."

DeKeuster points to provisions in the law that require dispensaries to grow all of their own marijuana and prohibit caregivers from selling their excess herb to them. She says that separation of the two models might have led to some angst.

Up on Hogback Mountain, G.W. Martin expresses a commonly heard sentiment within the local caregiver community.

"We're trying to defend the individual's rights to grow their plants," he says. "In other states, where you have to buy from a dispensary, that gives the dispensary control of the marijuana. Not saying we shouldn't have any dispensaries, but the people should have the control over their right to grow marijuana. That's what's going to keep the big money from away out of our marijuana business. Keep it Maine homegrown green bud. Maine's been doing just fine with the marijuana business. We've been an export state for a long time."

It was a battle that the caregivers were losing until they decided to take the fight to Augusta.

Taking It to Augusta

Following voter approval of the 2009 citizen initiative, medical marijuana received a renewed focus in Augusta. Conscious of Maine's conflict with federal drug policy and with strong input from law enforcement, a 2010 task force put more restrictions on the initiative. Among several provisions, the resulting legislation banned outdoor growing, making it prohibitively expensive for some patients to grow it themselves, and it also required patients to pay a $100 fee to sign up on a state registry. Proponents of the legislation pointed out that without a patient registry, there would be no way of tracking how much of the drug was being sold and to whom it was being recommended. On the other side, Alysia Melnick, the Public Policy Counsel for the Maine ACLU, argued that the policy violated patients' privacy by requiring them to disclose their medical conditions to the state and put them at risk of federal prosecution by putting them on a registry admitting to using the drug. Following the passage of the task force's bill, Melnick began considering writing legislation to restore the intent of the citizen initiative by allowing outdoor growing and making the registry optional for patients. Several months later, a peculiar alliance of patients, caregivers, left-wing and libertarian activists, the ACLU, Governor Paul LePage and a group of Tea Party-backed freshmen legislators got behind Melnick's bill. State officials and law enforcement were caught completely flat-footed by that new alliance that had only one thing that united them - marijuana.
The Anarchist

On a grey afternoon this past fall, I took a drive with Will Neils to visit a few of the local players in the medical marijuana movement. Neils, 36, has been active in a variety of left-wing causes, starting in the 1990s with the anti-globalization movement to the recent local controversies over the Plum Creek development and the proposed East West Highway. With his trademark long, dark hair pulled back in a pony tail and his rapid-fire speaking style, Neils has inspired his supporters and aggravated his detractors, particularly those in positions of authority. While Neils had been arrested at political demonstrations for civil disobedience in the past, he usually managed to stay on the right side of the law until September 21, 2010, when his camp out in rural Appleton was raided by police. Neils was arrested and charged with felony marijuana possession and aggravated trafficking as he had a loaded shotgun behind the couch.* A few weeks later, facing hard time, Neils went out to Harvest Fest, a pro-marijuana festival in Starks. There he sat on the hill with Cindy Brown of Starks and Hillary Lister of Athens and they discussed their plan to change Maine's medical marijuana policy.

By the time of Neils' arrest, he had become very active in Augusta politics. It was through lobbying on a bill that would have restricted the use of solitary confinement in Maine prisons that he met Alysia Melnick of the ACLU of Maine. Soon the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine (MMCM) began working together on the bill that would become L.D. 1296, "An Act To Amend the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Act To Protect Patient Privacy." Then in November 2010, Republican majorities were elected to both the House and Senate along with Tea Party favorite Paul LePage to the governor's office. Although Republicans have historically favored strict drug laws, the caregivers had a plan to reach the new conservatives.

* In November 2012 Neils took a plea agreement, agreeing to plead "no contest" to a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana for which he paid a $750 fine. In exchange for his plea, the charges of aggravated trafficking in marijuana were dismissed and the felony possession of marijuana charge was reduced to a misdemeanor.

The Libertarian

A tall wooden fence with an enormous "Ron Paul for President" sign lets us know we've arrived at the home of John Stewart and Cynthia Rosen, tea-party Republicans and marijuana caregivers.

A sign at the edge of the driveway reads: "NO TRESPASSING without the owners' express verbal or written authorization. This includes any and all Government Agents."

Stewart and Rosen have some experience making signs, as they were instrumental in raising the money for the "Open For Business" sign, which Governor LePage put up near the state's border with New Hampshire shortly after his election.

Stewart, a former legislative candidate and chair of the Washington Republican Committee, and Rosen, who co-authored the Maine Republican Party's so-called tea party platform, were also very active LePage supporters during the 2010 Republican primary. It was during that time that they got a signed statement from the future governor that he would support a return to the original intent of the medical marijuana initiative, according to Stewart.

"We pinned him down and got a written statement from him that he would support the will of the people," said Stewart. "We advocated for him and he won."

We find Stewart sitting at a bar in his greenhouse, which is heated with wood and biodiesel. With his long hair and beard, he is not the typical image of a conservative Republican, but as he explains it, "a conservative is someone who simply believes in the conservative use of government over the people," including laws against marijuana. Prior to growing pot, Stewart raised trout and lettuce, feeding the lettuce on the wastewater of the trout. He blames the state for changing regulations and making it cost-prohibitive to raise the fish, leading to his business going under.

"I just hung out here for a year and a half feeling wicked depressed and then along came medical marijuana. It saved the day!" says Stewart.

Papaya and fig trees with ripe fruit stretch to the high ceiling, and a crop of mature marijuana plants sits in the corner. A large white parrot gives the place a jungle-like feel, while young female apprentices tend to the plants. Neils and Stewart, both certified patients, sit at the bar and take their medicine.

From Concept to Law

Stewart invited Sanderson to visit his greenhouse when she declared her candidacy for the Legislature in the spring of 2010. Sanderson, who voted against the 2009 initiative, explained her evolution on the issue to the audience at Home Grown Maine.

"I was guilty of the stigma attached to marijuana and the use of medical marijuana," she told the audience. "My thought was, 'Oh great, we're just going to have people getting high on the street.' But because of the patient privacy piece and the government's overreaching attempt to come between a patient and their physician and insert themselves into your private medical record, [the bill] was something I could really embrace."

It was this message of personal liberty and honoring the will of the voters that helped bring several other new tea-party legislators on as co-sponsors. Meanwhile Rep. Sanderson gave Rosen, Stewart and Melnick permission to work on the draft of the bill with the Legislature's revisor's office. On the day of the public hearing for L.D. 1296, advocates, patients and caregivers packed the Health and Human Services Committee room to weigh in on the proposal. First up was Catherine Cobb, representing the Department of Health and Human Services, who promptly opposed the bill on several counts, saying the Department believed it opened up the program to abuse as the state would no longer be able to track medical marijuana suppliers.

"When we heard the testimony, I stood up and said, 'What?!'" recalls Stewart, who then promptly jumped out of his seat and headed for the exit.

"Where are you going?" asked Neils, following close behind.

"I'm going to the governor's office," Stewart called over his shoulder.

"Can I come with you?" Neils asked.

"Absolutely!" Stewart called back.

Stewart and Neils then confronted the governor's assistant (and daughter) Lauren LePage about Cobb's decision, but she didn't know the reasoning behind the move.

"Well, come to find out, [the governor] didn't know either," says Stewart, sighing.

While Stewart and Neils lobbied the governor's people, Rep. Sanderson called together a group of stakeholders including the governor's legal advisor, the Maine DEA, legislators, Cobb and Melnick. And when they came out of the meeting, the committee gave Sanderson's bill a unanimous vote of support, largely on the basis of patient privacy.

On the opening day of the legislative session in January 2012, legislators were greeted at the doors of the House chamber by a scruffy-looking group of young lobbyists. They passed out pins with marijuana leaves that said "Buy Local" and "[Marijuana] = Jobs." They shook hands with lawmakers, thanking them for their support. Legislators of both parties politely took the buttons, some putting them on their bags and lapels.

The Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine had finally become a political force in Augusta - newly empowered by their signature bill, L.D. 1296. With law enforcement kept at bay, caregivers began advertising their medicine and a few doctors began advertising their willingness to diagnose qualified patients.

Jake McClure, a registered caregiver and co-owner of Maine Hydroponic Supply in Jefferson, which reportedly had a boom in sales last year, says he doesn't look at dispensaries as competition anymore.

"Now that we've got the law the way we needed it to be and there's jobs for everyone, they're not really stepping on our toes," says McClure.

As the caregivers have begun emerging from the black market, they've also started reaching out to the community. In 2011, perhaps remembering the goodwill Republicans showed their industry, the Marijuana Caregivers of Maine donated $5,000 to the Help Heat Home charity drive, an initiative of the Knox County Republican Committee.


While Rep. Sanderson has become somewhat of a hero in the caregiver community, the loosening of restrictions and elimination of the state registry for patients and caregivers have caused heartburn for others.

The Maine Medical Association and law enforcement agencies have become alarmed by the easy access and relatively lax regulations on the plant. As Maine DEA Agent Roy McKinney says repeatedly, Maine's medical marijuana law still conflicts with the federal Controlled Substances Act, and his agency is required to investigate when they receive a complaint of a suspect cultivating pot. However, since registering with the state is now optional for patients, who are permitted to grow for their own consumption, there's no way of knowing whether they are legally growing it or not. It's difficult, says McKinney, to decide how many resources to put into investigating the complaints, since often the target of the investigation falls under the medical marijuana exemption. But the police don't know until they check. Additionally, McKinney points out that pharmaceutical drugs, unlike medical marijuana, are highly controlled and sold through a closed distribution system, yet the drugs still make it into the hands of recreational users.

"Anyone who thinks that marijuana that falls under the [medical] marijuana act isn't going to be diverted [to recreational users] is being very naive," says McKinney.

L.D. 1296 also eliminated the authority of the state to carry out inspections of caregivers, even though dispensaries are inspected. The state can no longer keep track of how many doctors are recommending medical marijuana since the patient registry is now optional. Other legislative measures, which would have added medical marijuana to Maine's prescription monitoring program and set up more centralized growing facilities for the growing and tracking of the drug have been killed by the Legislature. Task force member Sen. Anne Haskell (D-Portland), the sponsor of the latter two initiatives, has been a longtime advocate for medical marijuana after her daughter started using it for her cancer. Haskell says she's observed that Maine's current policy is moving in a direction of de facto decriminalization of the plant.

"[L.D. 1296] represented the least restrictive uses of marijuana and we have to figure out whether we want to treat this as a medicinal plant or if we're going to treat it as a recreational plant," said Sen. Haskell. "I think we need to decide as a society whether we're going to go the route of Washington and Colorado or not."

Go the Route of Washington & Colorado?

In the aftermath of successful legalization efforts in Washington and Colorado, many observers believe the end of marijuana prohibition is near. Regarding federal enforcement of the marijuana law in states where it has been legalized, President Obama was recently quoted as saying, "We've got bigger fish to fry." Maine lawmakers have agreed to some degree. In 2009, Maine decriminalized possession of up to 2.5 ounces of pot, treating it only as a civil violation.

Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland) has resubmitted her bill to legalize and tax cannabis for recreational purposes, a measure that received bipartisan support last session as it was even co-sponsored by current Maine G.O.P. Chair Rich Cebra. However, Democratic leadership has stated that they are not hot on the idea, and medical marijuana advocates like Rep. Sanderson and Rep. Mark Dion (D-Portland) are against it on the grounds that it could jeopardize the medical marijuana program.

"If we do it legislatively right now, I think we're asking for trouble from the federal government," says Sanderson. "I will not vote legislatively to legalize marijuana at this time and put our medicinal program in any kind of compromised position, with the security and viability of that program."

Within the caregiver community there's some worry that legalization would blow up their carefully crafted system, allowing big businesses to move in and squeeze small farmers out, while continuing to criminalize those who operate outside the regulatory parameters.

In California, counties like Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino voted against the marijuana legalization referendum Proposition 19. Those counties, known as the "Emerald Triangle" because it is the part of California where the most pot is grown, are not as well suited for growing as other parts of the state, and so they stood to lose a lot if marijuana was legalized. Even under Maine's post-L.D. 1296 framework, there have been some murmurings within the grower community that perhaps more regulation isn't such a bad thing, though none said so on the record.

"The biggest concern I've heard from local growers recently is that the markets have won," says McCarrier. "We're seeing the free market work like they claim it does. There's less regulation, so the price is going down because demand is at a certain level. Because the medical marijuana law is patient focused, all of a sudden all of these people who grow for patients don't have as many customers because patients are growing it themselves to save money."

Rep. Russell says her bill will grandfather in the caregivers and dispensaries, providing a limited number of retail licenses so that the market can still make profits for producers. She says that since she believes that legalization is coming, passing it legislatively is preferable to a referendum because all of the details can be worked out through a more rigorous vetting process.

Meanwhile, Rep. Dion, former Cumberland County Sheriff, along with the MMCM and ACLU, have recently crafted a bill, which Rep. Sanderson plans to cosponsor, to give doctors full discretion in recommending marijuana to patients, rather than be limited to prescribing it only for a list of certain conditions. It's also likely measures to restrict access and provide a tracking system for the drug will be on the table, as they have been in previous years.

Gordon Smith of the Maine Medical Association, which has advocated for much stricter medical marijuana laws, sees the line between medical and recreational use blurring, particularly if the new legislative agenda from the MMCM and ACLU passes. If Maine's medical marijuana laws are liberalized any further, he says, then the state might as well just legalize the plant altogether.