Marijuana has grown to become Maine’s most valuable crop

Twitter icon
man stood in front of marijuana store named Cure

Cannabis is now Maine’s most valuable crop, besting the state’s signature agricultural products such as potatoes, milk and blueberries.

 

Medical marijuana sales totaled $221.8 million from January through October, more than double what had been sold by this time last year, according to state sales tax figures. That puts the industry on pace to hit $266 million in sales this year despite a global pandemic that has put many Mainers out of work and depressed consumer spending nationwide.

“Since March, we have all been participating in a national experiment,” said Patrick Anderson, CEO of Anderson Economic Group, which issues a monthly national marijuana market benchmark. “What we’ve learned is that no matter what, Americans are going to get their cannabis, alcohol, baking supplies and cars, regardless of the economy.”

The boom follows a record-breaking year for the industry in 2019. Last year, the first time that Maine was able to tabulate all legal medical marijuana sales, Maine recorded more than $100 million in sales, twice as much as anyone expected. Year-to-date sales in 2020 show the market has doubled yet again, growing 152 percent.

Average monthly spending on cannabis spiked when COVID-19 lockdowns began in early 2020 and consumers rushed to stockpile a stash, according to New Frontier Data. In Colorado, the average consumer spent 43 percent more in April than March; in Las Vegas, spending rose 32 percent over that same period, and in Massachusetts, sales went up 48 percent.

Cannabis was immune to a lot of the pandemic’s biggest business killers, according to research analyst Noah Tamares of New Frontier Data. As a federally illegal drug, most cannabis production and consumption is local, shielding it from supply chain blips. It is also lockdown friendly – even before the pandemic, 65 percent of consumers reported using cannabis alone.

And there’s nothing like a good indica – a genus of marijuana plant generally known for its sedative effects – to help a consumer sleep through the 3 a.m. jitters of even the most anxiety-prone night, said Eric Maxim, a China resident and caregiver of seven years who opened Cannamax in Augusta in October 2019.

“We saw the lockdown coming and didn’t know what to expect, but our business has continued to grow throughout,” said Maxim, who launched the store with his wife. “We are expanding our hours and hiring two employees. We aren’t going to go nuts, but we have seen a lot of people coming in looking for relief. Let’s just say I’m twice as happy as I thought I’d be.”

With the likelihood of another wave of lockdowns rising, cannabis spends are spiking again, according to New Frontier Data. Colorado saw spending increases of 25 percent from August to September and 38 percent from September to October. During those same time periods in Massachusetts, spending increased by 16 and 34 percent, respectively.

A monthly breakdown of Maine’s medical marijuana sales shows steadily increasing numbers throughout the year, but a direct comparison with Colorado and Massachusetts is difficult because many companies submit their sales taxes – the basis for the state’s projected sales figures, on a quarterly basis rather than monthly.

The numbers include sales from Maine’s eight medical marijuana dispensaries and a network of almost 3,000 registered caregivers that serve about 65,000 certified medical marijuana patients. Maine only began tracking sales tax data for caregivers last year. In 2019, caregivers commanded a surprising 76 percent of the state’s $109 million medical cannabis market.

This year, the state wouldn’t specify how much each group contributed to Maine’s year-to-date medical sales.

While COVID-19 may have caused a nationwide marijuana sales bump, Maine’s record 2020 sales numbers may have more to do with natural market growth than pandemic hoarding – the number of caregivers licensed to sell medical marijuana is up 15 percent and the number of medical shops now tops 300, with more opening across the state every week.

The number of Maine residents certified by a doctor to buy medical marijuana continues to grow, too, especially since Maine eliminated the requirement that a patient be diagnosed as having one of a list of qualifying medical conditions to get a card. Now, a medical provider can certify them for any medical reason.

But the number of Maine patients almost doesn’t matter anymore, local retailers say. Due to a change in state law, Maine medical stores can now sell to card-carrying patients from 26 other medical marijuana states, including Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, whose medical cannabis markets are generally more expensive and less diverse than Maine’s.

John Morrison, the owner of Cure Cannabis in Auburn, said, “A lot of people have money to spend on weed because they’re not going out.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Cure Cannabis in Auburn, isn’t exactly on Maine’s traditional tourist trail, yet John Morrison, the owner, regularly welcomes customers who make weekend trips up from Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey and points farther south to check out Maine’s growing reputation for affordable craft cannabis while renting a weekend house or visiting a friend’s camp.

“A lot of people have money to spend on weed because they’re not going out,” Morrison said. “People are spending a lot of time at home. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of stress in the world right now. People are medicating. And If I’m worried about losing my job, or stretching my budget, even top-shelf cannabis is going to cost me a fraction of what I’d pay for an expensive dinner.”

Some local customers come in to buy a little weed every day, but others will make the long-distance drive to stock up every 15 days. The average customer spends $100, Morrison said. He estimates that his sales have increased tenfold since he opened his store about a year and a half ago.

Much of this natural market growth occurred as a direct result of legislative reforms sought by caregivers, like allowing caregivers to open stores, eliminating the qualifying condition list, allowing caregivers to hire more employees, codifying the right of caregivers to open shops and allowing medical marijuana growers to sell to each other, which created a wholesale market for medical marijuana products.

The Maine Office of Marijuana Policy didn’t respond to the Portland Press Herald’s request for an interview on the medical program’s rapid growth.

But 2020 hasn’t been a good year for every medical marijuana shop. Catherine Lewis, the head of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, said she had to lay off her employees over the summer, which forced her and her husband to do it all themselves, because business had slowed down so much. She has only just now been able to rehire them.

“I hear about people doing $3,000 sales on Black Friday and I’m like, ‘What? How?’ and wonder what lies ahead for me,” Lewis said. “I mean, it was raining on Black Friday. My customers are worried about getting sick, or sicker, and losing their job. How did the other stores do that? I barely cleared $500 that day.”

Lewis attributed the slowdown to increased competition and a customer base that was hit hard by the pandemic. She considered moving, but doesn’t want to abandon the customers who have remained loyal. The wholesale market has helped, however, as her in-house product line continues to sell well at other stores even as foot traffic in her own has dropped off a bit.

The state’s year-to-date numbers do not include recreational marijuana, which totaled $1,409,442 in October, the first month of legal adult-use sales. The recreational market has suffered from a limited number of store openings and widespread supply shortages and purchase limits. In contrast, medical marijuana sales in October totaled $22 million.

e-mail icon Facebook icon Twitter icon LinkedIn icon Reddit icon
Rate this article: 
Regional Marijuana News: