The top cannabis official in Maine sounded the alarm this week on illicit conduct tied to the state’s medical marijuana industry and illegal cannabis.
Erik Gundersen, director of the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy, made the comments to the Maine Legislature’s Marijuana Advisory Commission, which held a meeting on Tuesday.
The Bangor Daily News reported that Gundersen told the commission that “he believes there’s more illegal activity connected to the state’s medical marijuana industry and that his office has few tools to prevent medical cannabis from finding its way to the black market,” saying his office has 12 field investigators who are far from “sufficient for performing the necessary level of oversight when the investigators are only getting to registrants every four to five years.”
Gundersen noted that “the vast majority of caregivers in the medical marijuana industry are following the rules,” but that illegal activity nevertheless persists.
“It’s an economics thing. You can do quick, back-of-the-napkin math,” Gundersen said, as quoted by the Bangor Daily News. “I would imagine it’s easy to veer into the more gray area.”
Recreational and medical marijuana are both legal in Maine. It was reported that Gundersen told the legislative commission that his “office has fewer ways to regulate the medical use market than the recreational market for which retail sales started just last year.”
Voters in Maine legalized medical cannabis all the way back in 1999, and they did the same for recreational marijuana in 2016—although that law’s rollout was stymied by opposition from former Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who was staunchly opposed to legalization.
LePage vetoed legislation in 2017 that would have implemented the voter-approved law, but lawmakers in the state overturned his veto the following year.
In 2018, Maine voters elected a different governor, the Democrat Janet Mills, who moved quickly to implement the new marijuana law. Mills signed legislation in June of 2019, months after being sworn in, that helped finally implement what voters had sought years earlier.
Recreational pot sales finally began in the state in October of last year. By May, the state had racked up $5.3 million in recreational pot sales, which at the time was the highest grossing month since the market opened.
Gundersen said at the time that one of “the main goals of cannabis legalization is to diminish the illicit market.”
“The strong month-over-month growth here in Maine, just seven months after the official launch of the industry, suggests more and more consumers are choosing the tested, tracked, and well-regulated market over the illicit market,” Gundersen said then. “That is a positive sign for Mainers’ health and for the viability of the industry. With Maine’s busy summer season upon us, our effective regulation of the industry will continue.”
In August, the state doubled that total, pulling in more than $10 million in recreational pot products.
Despite those successes, Gundersen’s comments this week served as a reminder of the resilience of the illicit marijuana market, even in states and cities that have embraced legalization.
In California, for example, where voters legalized recreational pot use five years ago, “fully legal weed makes up just a fraction of the state’s marijuana market, with some experts estimating that 80 to 90 percent of cannabis sales in California still fall into a legal gray zone,” according to a report last week by National Public Radio.
Gundersen said Tuesday that it is “certainly one of the underlying objectives of a legalized market to eradicate the traditional market.”
“And that’s one of the things that I think, here in Maine, we’re struggling with,” he said, as quoted by the Bangor Daily News.