After a year of growth, Maine's legal cannabis industry faces new challenges

·8 min read

Oct. 16—One year after Maine launched its legal adult-use cannabis market, industry members say they're encouraged by the market's rapid growth, but they also shared worries about the possibility of market saturation, an influx of out-of-state corporate interests and continued issues with high prices.

In just under a year, Maine's recreational cannabis industry has brought in nearly $60 million, according to data released by the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy. While that figure can't match the $250 million in 2020 sales generated by Maine's more mature medical cannabis market, monthly sales in the adult-use market have grown rapidly since its launch on Oct. 9, 2020, edging downward just a bit in September to $9.7 million as summer tourism waned.

Industry participants are excited by the seemingly exponential growth in the long-awaited recreational program's inaugural year, but some worry that at some point, with more stores being added all the time, the market will become saturated or continued high prices will make it harder to compete against larger corporate sellers with deeper pockets.

September's sales dip from the industry's August peak of just over $10.2 million marked the first time the numbers have trended downward.

Erik Gundersen, director of the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy, said he is encouraged by the industry's growth over the past year.

"Since the launch of Maine's adult-use cannabis industry, our licensees have proven to be both innovative and resilient," Gunderson said in a statement. "We maintain the highest standards for public health in our adult-use program, and, on the anniversary of this industry's launch, are encouraged to see that more and more consumers are choosing the tested, tracked, and well-regulated market over the illicit market."

MORE STORES, MORE SALES

In just under a year, the state's 58 licensed adult-use retailers reported 788,551 sales transactions totaling over $58.5 million, earning the state roughly 5.8 million in sales tax revenue, according to the department's adult-use data dashboard.

Monthly sales have come a long way from roughly $1.3 million in the industry's first full month of operation, setting a new record each month thereafter until September.

At the start, the industry struggled with limited supply and high costs, but with 58 stores (five opened in September), 26 manufacturing facilities, 50 cultivation sites and three testing labs, buyers are continuing to see more variety and lower prices.

The average price of smokable marijuana flower has fallen from $16.68 per gram at market launch to $12.46 per gram as of September.

Smokable cannabis continues to account for the majority of sales, capturing about 58 percent of the revenue in September. However, that share is down from 76 percent when the market opened and 63 percent in January, likely the result of a product menu that continues to expand and diversify.

Cannabis concentrates and infused products such as edibles and beverages have both seen their share of the market increase, capturing 22 percent and 19 percent, respectively, compared with 14 percent and 10 percent in October 2020. The average transaction has remained at around $75 since the beginning.

The industry's growth trajectory is not likely to change anytime soon — the state has 171 stores, 77 manufacturing facilities, 159 cultivation sites and two additional labs in various stages of the approval process.

LIKE 'ANY OTHER BUSINESS'

Maine's rollout of legalized adult-use cannabis was the slowest in U.S. history. It took almost four years after voters approved legalization in 2016, with movement slowed by legislative rewrites, gubernatorial vetoes, a change in gubernatorial leadership and the coronavirus pandemic.

Only six stores were licensed to open on the first day. Coastal Cannabis was one of those early licensees, but things got off to a rocky start.

The small shop should have been one of the first to open its doors on Oct. 9, but there was just one problem: It didn't have any product to sell.

It took an additional month for Coastal Cannabis to stock its shelves enough to officially open, co-owner David Page said. Since then, it's been "full-steam ahead."

"We're just now starting to feel a little bit of a summer slowdown," he said. "It's not what it was this summer, but neither is any business in Maine."

Page said he has been somewhat surprised by the makeup of his customer base. He didn't expect to see so many older people or women coming into the store.

"I didn't realize there were so many female potheads," Page said. "It's been amazing."

Page said he doesn't know what to expect for his shop in the future. Some of that market "newness" has started to wear off, he said.

"It's going to turn into any other business in the world," he said, "(But) so far, it appears that there's room for everybody."

Green Cures in Auburn was the first shop to officially make a legal recreational marijuana sale in Maine, but owner Tanya Rollins hasn't been too enchanted with the realities of the legal market.

"It's had its goods and its bads, but it would have been better if I stayed medical," Rollins said. "The income that I'm seeing is not the same as the numbers that are being reported."

Larger companies with out-of-state investors and deep pockets to fall back on have made it increasingly difficult for independent shop owners to survive, she said.

Rollins said the proliferation of such competitors plays a major role in her dissatisfaction with the market and "will be the downfall of any small, mom-and-pop marijuana store."

As written, the law would have required every officer, director and manager of an adult-use cannabis business, and its majority owners, to have lived and filed taxes in Maine for at least four years. The mandate would have lapsed in June 2021 but would have given locals a leg up at the outset of the new market.

But Wellness Connection of Maine, the state's largest cannabis company, sued regulators, arguing that the requirement violated its constitutional right to interstate commerce by favoring Mainers.

A federal judge agreed, and in May 2020, the state and Wellness Connection reached a legal agreement stipulating that the Office of Marijuana Policy would no longer enforce the residency requirement, essentially inviting out-of-state investors into the market.

SATURATION A BIG CONCERN

A relative newcomer to the adult-use cannabis industry, John Kreis opened his shop, Portland Greenhouse, on Sept. 17.

Kreis was nervous about market saturation within the city when Portland first proposed its rules, which restricted the market to 20 retail licenses. He worried 20 stores would be too many in such a small city.

But then voters passed a referendum that eliminated the cap, as well as a required buffer zone between competitors. Now, Kreis is preparing to share a wall with another adult-use store, Stage Cannabis, which is expected to open later this month.

Kreis said he is trying to make the best of it. Portland has 14 adult-use shops now, but the potential for more is unlimited.

Kreis is hoping the two shops paired together will give the location added visibility. He said he plans to get along with his next-door competitor and will give his own store a unique identity to make it stand out.

"Anyone who's going to see his store is going to have to see my store," Kreis said.

Still, it's not easy to get the word out to a wider audience, he said, and Maine has tight restrictions on how cannabis can be marketed.

"I'm scared to death to do anything to market (the store) for fear of being noncompliant," Kreis said. "I'm trying to do the right thing and follow the rules. Everyone is, but there are so many rules."

AN EVOLVING MARKET

Mohammed Ibrahem, owner of Bangor's Firestorm Cultivation, another of the first round of licensees, is more optimistic about the industry's continued growth.

"Things are going really great," he said. "We've seen the industry rise from nothing to something significant."

Prices are high, Ibrahem said, but Maine has done a good job of bringing them down as much as possible now that supply is starting to catch up with demand.

Like other shop owners, he has seen a bit of a dip in visitors as fall goes on, but Ibrahem said that's just like any other business in Maine.

He's not worried about the market becoming overly saturated. In fact, at the outset, he was more concerned about how few licensees were permitted in the first round, but that problem has largely resolved itself.

"The pace of sales and the expansion of licenses being issued is right around where I thought it would be," Ibrahem said.

Sweet Dirt, which opened its Waterville location in December and its Portland store in March, continues to grow.

CEO Jim Henry said the company, which also boasts a large greenhouse and a medical store in Eliot, employed about 30 people a year ago. Now, it has between 115 and 125 employees.

Rather than a decline in business, Henry said he's noticing different buying patterns, with stronger business on weekends and a "softening" during the week.

Henry said he believes business will remain steady year-round, with people coming for leaf-peeping in the fall and ski season in the winter.

There are still challenges, of course, whether from the pandemic, the labor shortage, supply chain problems or a combination of factors, he said.

"Certainly, everything seems a little harder than you'd expect," Henry said.

But despite all that, he said, Maine's adult-use program has become more successful than he had envisioned. And he hopes it stays that way.

"A rising tide will lift all boats," Henry said.

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