The coronavirus pandemic has compelled Maine to put its planned June debut of the state’s long-awaited recreational cannabis market on indefinite hold.
“It now appears as though a spring launch of Maine’s adult use industry is simply unrealistic,” said Erik Gundersen, the director of the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy. “Public health experts have clearly communicated that they cannot answer what social distancing or other guidance may be in effect as we approach late spring and early summer.”
The pandemic also has forced local communities likely to host the industry’s first growing operations, processing labs, retail stores and testing labs to postpone authorizing these activities, Gundersen noted. Under state law, all recreational products must be tested for potency and safety before sales can occur.
Kennebunk was set to hold an April 7 referendum on whether to allow Nelson Analytical, a local lab that already tests medical marijuana, to begin testing recreational cannabis, too, but had to push that vote off until May because of the pandemic. Nelson was the first lab to apply for a state marijuana testing license.
In a letter to industry stakeholders issued Friday, Gundersen said he would not speculate on when rollout might occur, saying there were just too many unknowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to provide an accurate prediction.
“We are simply unable to provide any concrete timelines in these uncertain times,” he wrote. “We cannot tell you with any level of certainty when towns will be able to take action … and we certainly cannot set a definitive retail sales launch date amidst a public health pandemic.”
In the past, Gundersen had told state budget forecasters that first sales would begin by July 1. Forecasters had banked on collecting sales taxes from a projected $5 million worth of recreational sales in the first few weeks. But now those sales, and the projected sales taxes, must be put on hold.
The news will disappoint the hundreds of marijuana companies that have waited more than three years to participate in the legal adult-use market in Maine, especially those shelling out thousands of dollars every month to secure the property and personnel needed to be first movers in this emerging market.
The office began awarding its first conditional licenses last month. The office licensing staff has continued to process license applications throughout the pandemic, and as of Friday, had issued 70 conditional state licenses to businesses that want to open growing operations, labs and retail stores in 19 towns, from Bangor to Berwick.
But a conditional state license is just the first step in a three-stage licensing process. Applicants must then get local authorization, which even before the pandemic might have taken anywhere from two weeks to an entire year depending on the community, before returning to the state to get a final active license.
While Maine’s recreational market is on hold, its medical cannabis market is continuing to operate despite the pandemic because Gov. Janet Mills deemed it an essential business. It is too early to say how the outbreak has impacted the 20-year medical cannabis industry, which last year racked up $116 million in sales.
Maine had been banking on its recreational marijuana market to clock in at about $168 million in its first full year of operation, $236 million in its second year and $332 million in year three. Private cannabis research firms predicted even higher sales, as well as 6,100 new industry jobs.
In his letter Friday, Gundersen tried to reassure the industry that the office was doing all it could to roll out the new market as soon as it was safe to do so, acknowledging how long some have been waiting. Since its creation in February 2019, the office has met every launch deadline that it set, he said – until now.
“Few would have envisioned the effects the (COVID-19) would have on the daily lives of Mainers,” he said.