John and Ploy Lorenz at Sweet Relief, in Northport. The couple is positioned to open one of Maine’s first recreational cannabis stores next month. (Photos: Ethan Andrews)
John and Ploy Lorenz at Sweet Relief, in Northport. The couple is positioned to open one of Maine’s first recreational cannabis stores next month. (Photos: Ethan Andrews)
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On September 9, one day after the state announced that Sweet Relief, a mom-and-pop medical marijuana business in Northport, had been granted one of two licenses to sell recreational marijuana in Maine, owner John Lorenz was pulling stakes at his farm in Morrill and quoting Rocky to me on the phone in punchdrunk Stallone:

“You gotta take a hit, and you gotta keep moving forward. If you stay down, if you don’t get up, it’s over. You gotta take a hit and move forward and keep moving forward. You can’t give up.” He laughed and his voice pitched up to its normal tone, which is wide-eyed and earnest. “I’ve been on this hunt since 2014, since two years before the referendum. I’ve been reading everything, you know, minutiae, a lot of Google alerts, every medical marijuana thing in Maine, I’ve been reading for six years. You know, I’ve given up everything to make this possible. My work is paying off, my time is paying off. Tomorrow is not the day to get something going in this industry.”

There’s still the better part of a month before adult-use businesses can open on October 9. But the list of those that are close to being licensed is short, and not all of them will make opening day. Meaning, there’s a chance that, at least for a moment, Sweet Relief will be the only game in the midcoast. Whether that amounts to a golden ticket remains to be seen.

Lorenz and his wife Ploy were quick on the draw for retail medical marijuana, opening Sweet Relief in an old house on Route 1 in early 2019. They recenly paneled over the back rooms where they live as a requirement of adult-use rules and renovated an outbuilding, which will house the medical product, while the original shop becomes the adult-use store.

Over the last 18 months, Lorenz said he’s fielded a steady stream of inquiries and demands from people who want to buy pot but don’t have a medical card. The card costs $49 and takes about 15 minutes to get online, complete with an email that lets the cardholder start shopping right away, but many balk at the extra step.

“I can’t imagine that happens in other states,” he said. “It just, it wouldn’t make any sense. And that day is almost over.”

Maine Office of Marijuana Policy released applications for adult-use — a.k.a. recreational — licenses on December 5, 2019. Lorenz said he stayed up late doing the paperwork and was waiting outside the office in Augusta when the doors opened at 8 a.m. the next morning. Looking back, he said, that was the easy part. Licensing happens in three steps, and the next two would take him the better part of nine months.

After applicants get conditional approval from OMP, which in Lorenz’s case meant about five months of tweaking the initial application, they must get authorization from the town or city where the business will be located. Lorenz did that January and said Northport officials were very supportive and helpful. For the final step, he had to submit plans to the state for the layout of the store and security system, then do the work and have it inspected by state officials. This step took three months to complete and was the most difficult, he said.

David Heidrich, spokesman for Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy, said the number of licenses announced earlier this month has everything to do with who has completed the steps. Active licenses will be issued on an ongoing basis, he said. A real-time dashboard of applications pending with OMP can be viewed online at maine.gov/dafs/omp. Beyond that, the timeline is up to the entrepreneur.

Tammy Maseychik, who runs Sunflower Farmacy, a medical cannabis caregiver shop just up the road from Sweet Relief, got authorization from Northport town officials at the same time as Lorenz and was planning to be ready for the opening. But when the state put the process on hold earlier this year because of the pandemic, she figured it wouldn’t get going again until 2021 and was caught out of position and on the cusp of the annual harvest when the revised opening date was announced last month.

“I feel bad not being ready by October 9 because the state has worked really hard to get me through the system, but then I had to pump the breaks,” she said. “It’s kind of breaking my heart, but I haven’t figured it out yet.”

She also had mixed feelings about rushing into adult-use.

A new medical patient dropped by the shop and told Maseychik the quality of cannabis at some of the larger caregiver operations had fallen off during the past year. Among small caregivers, quality has been a selling point that some wagered would be their best defense against the inevitable arrival of heavily financed multistate cannabis corporations — the Weedmarts, as they are sometimes called. But adult-use rules, which require strict separation from medical caregiver businesses down to the level of separate driveways, are forcing the early adopters to buy their inventory, often while continuing to cultivate their own medical-use plants. For Maseychik, that’s made for a tricky calculation.

“If we can figure out how to keep the integrity of the product, adult-use would be great to be able to offer to people who aren’t going to use it all the time but want to have access to it,” she said. “Because I don’t see it as any different from alcohol, and in many ways it’s actually much safer for you than alcohol.”

For consumers, the price will be higher than medical marijuana on account of the 20% tax for recreational sales, as compared with the 5% charged to patients.

The list of applicants for adult-use licenses who also have conditional state approval and local authorization — meaning those who are most likely to be ready to open on October 9 — was a modest 36, statewide, at the time of this writing. That includes applications by Lorenz and Maseychik for cultivation and Maseychik’s pending store application. Of the 17 stores at this stage in the process, just two others are in Lincoln, Knox or Waldo counties: Coastal Cannabis Company in Damariscotta and Highly Cannaco, a current medical caregiver in Boothbay.

One reason for the small numbers in this area is the requirement that municipalities opt in to allow adult-use businesses.

In the midcoast, it’s a sparse patchwork. Boothbay, Damariscotta, Northport, Rockland and Somerville allow all types of adult-use businesses. Camden, Union and Warren allow cultivation but not other types of businesses. Monroe allows growing and manufacturing, and Searsport allows growing and testing.

Paul McCarrier, a Belfast caregiver who formerly advocated for legalization of marijuana in Maine, said the state’s laws for adult-use are fatally flawed.

“The long and short of it is that due to the Legislature’s gutting of the 2016 Citizens Initiative, which created a punishing tax structure and dark regulations, the cost for consumers will be near double what it is in the medical market now,” he wrote in an email. “Until the Legislature is willing to address the abusive taxes that are placed on adult-use cannabis, I don’t see many working people here in the mid-coast being able to afford it.”

Lorenz is optimistic. He likened the opening next month to the lifting of Prohibition close to a century ago. A town selectman had approached him wanting to be the first sale.

“It’s history,” he said. “I’m making history.”