Big Cannabis vs. Small Grows
The following is an article for Culture Magazine by Randy Robinson, see the full piece here.
Maine, a state known best for its six-dollar lobsters and famed author Stephen King. If you're like most Americans, that's probably all you know about the Pine Tree State. But Maine may become a historical first for the cannabis movement. Right now, there's a citizen's initiative at odds with a lobbyist initiative, and it could change the face of legalization in the state.
In one corner is David Boyer, the state's political director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). Boyer currently holds two wins under his belt. In 2012, he successfully campaigned for decriminalization in Portland. In 2014, he scored again for decriminalization in South Portland. Boyer's organization, MPP, is no lightweight, either. The Washington D.C.-based organization was responsible for Amendment 64 in Colorado and Measure 2 in Alaska. They currently back a number of similar bills in other states, all of which may pass by 2016.
In the other corner is Paul T. McCarrier, a native Mainer who leads the "homegrown" group Legalize Maine, which beat MPP to a draft submission several weeks ago. And he's gone toe-to-toe with heavyweights before. Ironically, in 2012, McCarrier spearheaded an effort to block a recreational bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Russell. Why would McCarrier block legalization? Because, while Russell's initiative may have been a "great bill," great wasn't good enough for him. "It did not give power to the people," he said. "It gave preferential treatment to the dispensaries."
Legalize Maine's draft instead gives preference to the state's caregivers—the home growers and rural farmers. Agriculture once formed the backbone of the state's economy, and McCarrier aims to return that privilege to the state's locals. Instead of granting licensing power to a liquor board or health department, the Maine Department of Agriculture would ultimately decide who grew for adult-use.
Alongside defining cannabis as a crop rather than as a vice, Legalize Maine's initiative preserves the caregiver model over the dispensary model. McCarrier's concern is that MPP's bill could spell the end of Maine's much-loved medical system. Last year, Americans for Safe Access gave its highest rating to Maine's MMJ program. That's no fluke, either: The state classifies medical patients as a legally protected class, meaning qualified patients can't be fired for consuming THC. The state also guarantees a patient's anonymity. Patients aren't required to register with the state. A medical card is completely optional.
Regardless, Boyer insists MPP's bill would also protect medical patients. "Our initiative will not touch the medical marijuana code in Maine," he said. "If you're a caregiver in Maine, you can continue to be a caregiver in Maine. We see the need for medical coexisting with adult-use." To MPP's credit, the organization proposed a medical subsidization program into Washington, DC's legalization bill, so low-income patients could afford the best meds. However, fears of medical collectives and caregivers being squashed by other so-called "Big Marijuana" lobbies aren't terribly far-fetched.
In February, Colorado's Senate passed SB-14, increasing oversight on medical caregiver grows. Prior to SB-14, caregivers went largely unregulated. Product didn't require testing, which triggered anxiety in an industry where regulations are king and safety is paramount. Public perception, after all, is everything. However, SB-14's supporters were only partially concerned about quality control. During the senate hearing, lobbyists addressed black market cannabis as a consistent problem plaguing the legalization movement. Larisa Bolivar, former co-owner of Colorado's first dispensary and current CEO of the Cannabis Consumers Coalition, attended the SB-14 hearing to defend caregivers. She said ever-fluctuating regulations unnecessarily drove caregivers into debt, and laws like SB 14 could legislate the system out of existence. But she added the dispensary vs. caregiver conflict wasn't really the issue.
"It's the fact that marijuana is still illegal federally and in surrounding states," she said. "As long as there's prohibition, there's always incentive for a black market. It's behavioral economics; it's very simple."
Washington State, the second state to legalize recreational use, is experiencing similar growing pains. SB-5052, which passed through the legislature in March, regulates the collective grow system much like Colorado's SB-14. And just like Colorado, supporters of SB 5052 cited the black market and contaminated meds as causes for concern. The bill's original text eliminated medical altogether, but after successful negotiations, the final version kept collectives in place—for now. Jeremy Kaufman, owner of Absolute Oils and co-founder of The Center for Palliative Care in Washington, cautioned against business interests crafting laws against their competition. "Money is money," he said. "It's hard for a lot of small growers that are disenfranchised to lobby." Of course, medical collectives/caregivers don't have to be at odds with "Big Marijuana." This fight isn't inevitable; it isn't even necessary. Subsidizing medical grows from cannabis taxes could compromise low-cost access with big business profits. "I would love to see legislation that allows money from tourists to funnel research to truly sick people," Kaufman said. "That sounds like utopia.".