PORTLAND, Maine — Medical marijuana dispensaries were legalized here four years ago, but officials with Maine’s largest distributor say even as the drug becomes one of the state’s largest cash crops, the growth of the industry is hampered by the federal prohibition of pot.

And that’s even without the specter of federal prosecution, as U.S. Justice Department officials have followed a hands-off approach to enforcement in states where medical cannabis is legal and subject to strong local oversight.

The list of underreported byproducts of the clash between state and U.S. marijuana laws goes on and on, said Patricia Rosi, chief operating officer of Wellness Connection of Maine, far and away the state’s largest dispensary operator.

Most insurance plans, using federal guidelines, won’t cover medical marijuana use. Distributors cannot apply for federal nonprofit status. Science laboratories are reluctant to do research on the drug because most are funded by federal grants. Patients can be legally denied jobs.

That’s on top of the lingering stigma that Rosi said continues to follow and embarrass medical marijuana users.

It’s a very different business landscape than exists for the state’s signature wild blueberry industry, which by some estimates has already been surpassed in value by Maine’s legal marijuana crop.

Unlike the iconic blueberries, cannabis is being credited with — as one patient said — “giving people their lives back.”

Ruthann Carkhuff, 44, said she was diagnosed in 1996 with fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disease, conditions that sapped her of the ability to lift her limbs. Before starting to use medical marijuana about 21 months ago, Carkhuff couldn’t hold her infant grandson.

“I couldn’t even brush my hair, which we so often take for granted,” she recalled. “Putting socks on or getting dressed was extremely difficult.”

She’d tried “pretty much every single painkiller” available — including OxyContin — and finally found relief at Wellness Connection. Carkhuff said she takes “between two and four puffs in the afternoon” and the effects last through the evening.

“That’s it. I don’t do it to a point where, excuse my phrasing, I’m high or stoned, which is what most people think,” she said.

“There’s still a lot of misconceptions that need to be debunked about medical marijuana and what a medical marijuana patient looks like,” Rosi said.

The value of the crop

Becky DeKeuster, executive clinical director of Wellness Connection, said there are no official or widely accepted numbers on the value of Maine’s medical marijuana crop. Wellness Connection is the largest distributor, operating four of the state’s eight total dispensaries — in Thomaston, Brewer, Portland and Hallowell — and has about 3,000 of the state’s 4,500-plus dispensary patients.

Distributors are allowed under state law to have six marijuana plants per patient. A commonly referenced law enforcement estimate is that each marijuana plant is worth approximately $3,000. So, based on simplistic math, if all of the state’s distributors grow their maximum number of plants, Maine’s medical marijuana crop is worth about $81 million.

DeKeuster said Wellness Connection is growing “well below” its six-plant-per-patient maximum. But adding the patients who grow their own medical marijuana outside the dispensary system, which has been quietly allowed in Maine since 1999, brings the number of users up to a reported estimate of 13,000 Mainers.

If each patient, combining dispensary members with those who grow their own, is represented by even just two plants, that would put the value of the statewide crop at $78 million.

For comparison, Maine’s wild blueberry harvest has been worth between $70 million and $80 million annually in recent years.

An annual state Department of Health and Human Services report released late last month found that the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Program took in $612,370 in fees in 2012, $146,342 more than it spent to regulate the nascent industry.

A report by the Colorado-based publication Medical Marijuana Business Daily estimates that the medical marijuana industry will gross about $1.5 billion in sales nationwide this year, growing to about $6 billion per year by 2018.

Efforts to legalize the recreational use of marijuana statewide in Maine, as has been done in Washington and Colorado, fell flat in the Legislature this year. Portland residents, however, will get a chance on Nov. 5 to vote on an ordinance change that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug in Maine’s largest city.

Getting established

As the biggest and most recognizable entity in the field, Wellness Connection of Maine has become in some ways the face of the state’s medical marijuana industry.

And along the way, that face has gotten some black eyes.

Wellness Connection is still in the process of fighting a National Labor Relations Board complaint filed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which alleges the company “unlawfully retaliated” against employees for trying to organize a labor union.

Wellness Connection, which expects to employ 50 people by the end of the year, has countered that it offers its workers good pay and benefits, and that employees hoping to unionize represent a minority.

Rosi said the organization’s average employee is paid 43 percent more than the minimum wage, receives 100 percent health care coverage and is offered a 401K plan with a company match.

“They’ve filed a complaint with the NLRB that we’re working on and going through that process,” Rosi said. “If the majority of workers want to unionize, then they can unionize. But I haven’t seen a majority interest in unionizing.”

Before the emergence of the labor dispute, the organization was the subject of a high-profile investigation by the state Department of Health and Human Services in late March after word leaked it had been using pesticides at its Auburn indoor growing facility.

Rosi said Wellness Connection admitted to using several safe, organic pesticides such as sesame oil and canola oil, and were cited by state investigators because rules on the books at the time did not allow for any topical pesticides.

Since then, she said, the organization has begun using tiny parasitic wasps to battle back crop-eating aphids, and an emergency bill was passed by the Legislature to allow the use of “minimum risk” pesticide applications like many of those Wellness Connection was previously scolded for.

“Initially, the regulations said you couldn’t use anything on cannabis and if you’re growing tomatoes or anything else, you need some way to control pests,” DeKeuster said. As a result of the dispute over Wellness Connection’s practices, “Maine was one of the first — if not the first — in the country to clarify what it is we can use on cannabis.”

On Friday, the state Board of Pesticides Control closed the book on the case officially by signing off on a negotiated $18,000 fine paid by Wellness Connection earlier in the summer.

In a statement provided to the Bangor Daily News on Thursday by DHHS spokesman John Martins, the department’s Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services reported that “Wellness Connection has addressed all of our concerns to our satisfaction and has been cooperative with the division.”

“Their program is compliant with the Maine Medical Marijuana Program rules and as such, they are fully licensed,” the department statement said.

The struggle over pesticides reveals a number of ways in which the federal prohibition on medical marijuana continues to plague Maine distributors even though the practice is legalized at the state level.

State regulations allow a farmer growing corn to use any number of topical pesticides on the market that list corn crops as one of their federally approved applications, for example. But because marijuana isn’t recognized as legal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the entities that primarily regulate pesticides, cannabis is never listed as an approved crop.

So while Mainers may commonly be eating fruits and vegetables that were grown using pesticides, medical marijuana has fallen outside the purview of the makers and regulators of pesticides, leaving almost all of them off-limits.

The federal prohibition is impactful in another way on the pesticides front as well: It scares away many scientists who could otherwise prove that certain organic applications are safe.

“We couldn’t even spray lemon juice on the leaves of a 6-inch-tall plant,” DeKeuster recalled.

“There have been no clinical trials on what happens when lemon juice is inhaled,” Rosi added. “A lot of laboratories are funded by federal grants, and they refuse to work on our crops because they’re worried about losing federal grant funding.”

Medical marijuana patients

From the patient side, the federal prohibition of medical marijuana presents different challenges, but the U.S. government isn’t the only one giving disapproving looks.

“When people think of marijuana dispensaries, they think of small, dark, gloomy places where people are all wearing tie-dye,” Rosi said. “We’re exactly the opposite.”

In one of the first media interviews allowed by Wellness Connection inside its Portland dispensary, located off Congress Street behind Local 188 restaurant, Rosi and DeKeuster sat in an open, brightly lit space with lime green walls decorated with images of birch trees.

A few couches, tables and brochure racks represented the only furnishings in an environment more clean and illuminated than many of the city’s popular coffee shops.

DeKeuster said the organization’s average patient is a male in his mid-50s.

“We see a lot of folks dealing with cancer, we see a lot of folks dealing with chronic pain,” she said.

“Contractors, fishermen, lobstermen,” Rosi added.

But one patient, Colleen Jones-Turner, 52, said she expects that one of her doctors may drop her when her name appears in print for a story about medical marijuana.

“It isn’t easy to be a medical marijuana patient,” said Jones-Turner, who was diagnosed with epilepsy as a child. “For years, I had doctors who would say, ‘We want you on medical marijuana,’ but none of them would prescribe it because they were scared of getting a reputation.”

Fellow patient Carkhuff, battling fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disease, said her mother still struggles to accept her choice of medical treatment. The worst of it, Carkhuff said, has been explaining her condition and medicine to employers.

“I was denied two positions and they did explain to me it was because of the medical cannabis,” she said. “I was glad they were honest, but they said, ‘We’d rather have someone with a clean urine test and someone we know.’”

DeKeuster said based on the latest legal precedents, employers can fire or refuse to hire someone for testing positive for marijuana even when that person is legally using the drug medicinally.

“Somebody out in their car rolling a joint reflects on all of us, but that’s not representative of who we are [in the medical marijuana field],” DeKeuster said.

Additionally, insurance plans don’t cover medical marijuana because of its status as a federally outlawed substance, she said.

“We do have a low-income program for folks on MaineCare or other programs, because we do realize that some patients are having to decide between medicine and food or rent,” DeKeuster said.

“Costs [to the patients] will vary widely depending on many factors, including the size and type of product a patient chooses,” she later added. “As one example, a patient who needs to use an ounce of flower medicine a month may spend between $150 and $350. We make every effort possible to ensure that cost is not a barrier to safe access.”

But the lack of insurance help remains another federal hurdle in the fledgling state industry, Rosi said.

“This is really an emerging industry. When was the last time an underground industry went above-ground? There was alcohol prohibition [in 1933] and then this,” Rosi said. “So much of what we’re up against is fear. Doctors fear something. The patients fear other things, neighbors and community members fear something. Employers have fear and employees have fear. How do you remove fear?”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.