Any professional who works in this industry understands that being an educator and industry ambassador is simply part of the work. There is so much people just don’t know. We spend a significant amount of time educating people about medical cannabis, how to consume it responsibly, and how to comply with the state’s laws and regulations for patients.
We do this because, as it turns out, 80-plus years of stigma, labels, and stereotypes about cannabis can’t be undone overnight.
It’s frustrating enough when ill-chosen words or outright falsehoods are used by the uninformed, or by people who disapprove of cannabis for any use. But it’s even more frustrating when negative rhetoric comes from a respected legislator who has long been a proponent of Maine’s medical cannabis program.
And when those words serve to perpetuate a divide between medical cannabis dispensaries and medical cannabis caregivers—two pieces of the medical cannabis program that have been trying to build bridges across a historical divide—it’s downright disheartening.
On Wednesday, during a work session on a medical cannabis bill provision which would allow dispensaries more flexibility in growing and professionalizing their businesses, State Representative Deb Sanderson said, “I am very uncomfortable in allowing — in the most simplistic terms here — something that allows for the growth of Walmarts and puts limitations on the mom and pops.” (It’s worth noting that the proposal in question placed no limitations on caregivers; it did not in any way address their operations.)
The Walmart analogy is clever, in that it condenses a number of vague preconceptions into a sound bite that evokes an emotional reaction. Walmart’s gargantuan size, global spread, and low pricing squeeze out mom and pop businesses around the nation; therefore, Maine’s eight dispensaries are depicted as somehow squeezing out “mom and pop” caregivers around our state.
But as is the case with many sound bites, when one begins to unpack and analyze this metaphor, its utter detachment from reality becomes more and more apparent.
While Maine’s eight state-licensed medical cannabis dispensaries may be growing, they are hardly putting caregivers out of business.
Consider: there are currently over 2,200 individual caregivers registered with the state, up from about 1,200 in 2013 (according to the annual reports issued by program regulators).
A number of factors mean that we do not have sales tax revenue from these 2,200+ caregivers, or a clear count of how many patients they are serving. But in terms of economic and lobbying impact, there’s strength in their numbers.
There are other implications of the Walmart slur—and it was clearly intended as such. “From away,” low wages, cheap mass-produced products. None of these is true of the eight state-licensed dispensaries.
Dispensaries are managed and staffed by Mainers (there are no owners because we are required to be not-for-profit companies). We employ over 150 staff who receive above minimum wage and many of whom enjoy company-subsidized health insurance and 401k plans.
Regulatory requirements mean that dispensaries’ products are grown without any of the pest control substances or “bud boosters” available in every grow store in the state. Someone must be purchasing these products, because stores keep stocking them, but it is not the eight dispensaries.
The dispensaries are a pretty easy target. There are only eight of us, after all. This is despite the fact that the 2009 referendum placed no limit on the number of dispensary licenses that would be available. The 124th Legislature limited the number to eight, in an effort to allow close regulatory oversight of these then-new businesses. Since that time, the number has not been increased.
Maine’s medical cannabis program—dispensaries, caregivers and home-growing patients – serves somewhere north of 40,000 adults around this state. It is an evolving industry, and keeping up with its growth presents unique regulatory challenges. Furthermore, in November, we are likely going to vote on legal use for all adults 21 and over.
The existing medical cannabis program, and the impending legal market, present us with complex issues that require dispassionate, factual analysis. Maine citizens are not well-served when we boil these issues down to “the most simplistic” terms—particularly when those terms are demonstrably misleading.