With medical and recreational marijuana use now legal in Maine, today’s growers are combining green thumbs with advanced chemistry to produce varieties to treat everything from anxiety to pain.

But things have changed a bit since the days when marijuana was an illicit drug sold on the black market — including the potency of today’s marijuana.

“Back when I was a teenager I’d smoke a little bit on and off,” 67-year-old Don Davis, a retired University of Maine IT worker, said. “I joined the Air Force in 1969 and did not smoke much after that for many years until I got my medical marijuana card six years ago.”

With no dispensary available at that time in his area, Davis said he contacted a friend of a friend who was able to supply some medical grade marijuana, which turned out to be a bit different than the weed he remembered from his younger days.

It was, he said, far more potent but also not as quick acting as he remembered marijuana being.

“I came home, took a hit and nothing,” he said. “I took another big hit — nothing. So I took a third hit, and then it really set in.”

That was followed, Davis said, by a period of cold sweats and a midday three-hour nap.

“It was very potent,” he laughed. “But now I understand that. My partner and I enjoy smoking a bit every night.”

Davis said he uses the marijuana to help cope with chronic insomnia.

“I go to sleep every night as opposed to tossing and turning,” he said.

As Maine lawmakers continue to hammer out rules and regulations in the wake of last November’s vote to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, Steve Rusnak, owner of Full Bloom Cannabis in Fort Kent, said more people who once smoked it years ago are coming back and, like Davis, are a bit surprised at some of the differences.

“Even just 10 or 15 years ago you would call your weed guy to buy some and he’d probably have one or maybe two varieties to choose from,” Rusnak said. “Now I have six varieties I grow and sell and am constantly growing different ones [and] I would recommend people start off with baby steps if they have not smoked for a long time.”

Finding a strain of marijuana that works best is very individual process, according to Patricia Rosi, CEO of Wellness Connection of Maine, growers of medical grade marijuana.

“One of the stereotypes I address every day is the misnomer that marijuana is one plant,” Rosi said. “There is now a much higher sophistication of the [marijuana] market with thousands of strains identified.”

At Wellness Connection of Maine, she said, they grow more than 40 varieties of marijuana and offer up to 15 of those at any given time in their dispensaries around the state.

“The reason we do that is each plant offers different benefits and flavors,” she said. “It’s really a journey process [and] people need to find what works best for them and it is important in that exploration for us to offer diversity.”

To offer that level of diversity, Wellness Connection of Maine staff are constantly working to transition what was for years a smoking product into a pharmaceutical grade, effective and consistent product, according to Dan Niesen.

“What has happened in the world of marijuana is we are using science so our customers can know up front what the individual products can do,” Niesen, the director of the company’s quality control, said. “We are very well aware there is a large part of the medical marijuana market that is also recreational but there are also people buying our products with compromised immune systems and they require something that is absolutely safe.”

At its Auburn laboratory, Wellness Connection of Maine uses high-tech equipment to extract specific chemicals from marijuana which they can then recombine to formulate specific tinctures, salves and other medical products.

“At the end of the day this is still a plant,” Niesen said. “You can still sprinkle seeds and grow something, but it has really blossomed into a much more sophisticated process for us.”

Retiree Ned Lightner of Belfast enjoys smoking marijuana and growing his own — albeit the old-fashioned way.

“I’m not part of a new stoner culture. I’m just a person who is excited to grow weed and feel slightly naughty,” Lightner said with a laugh. “Even though it is legal to grow it in Maine now, it still feels naughty.”

The second he found out he could grow it legally, Lightner put a decidedly 21st century twist on the old grow-your-own movement.

“I watched YouTube videos on how to grow what I needed to get,” he said. “So I went out and bought these wonderful [grow] lights that are incredibly powerful but did not know where to get seeds.”

So Lightner went back online and Googled it.

“Almost instantly I found all these places you can get seeds,” he said.

Lightner ended up ordering from a seed supplier in Holland and today has several plants thriving growing “old school” in the yard of a friend.

“They are similar to what I grew back in 1971,” he said. “I was never really a hippie. I was just a typical college kid but did have my hair in a ponytail and hung out with people who smoked weed occasionally and we liked to think of ourselves as counter culture or rebels without a cause.”

Smoking marijuana back then, Lightener said, was like enjoying a craft beer today with friends — a way to relax and enjoy yourself.

He does agree that today’s marijuana does contain a bigger bang for the buck.

“I smoked some stuff three days ago with friends, and we did not pass the joint around four or five times like in the old days,” he said. “We each just took one hit and got a nice little buzz — kind of like sipping a good whisky where you have a shot and not the whole bottle.”

Rusnak said it is a lot like people enjoying a glass of beer at the end of the day.

“You don’t have that beer to get hammered,” he said. “You are having the beer or a little weed to relax after a long day and, in real way, that is a medicinal use, too.”

That’s an important distinction for Lightner.

“You want a nice balance in your life. Getting stoned once a week or so I think is fine,” he said. “I do believe the ‘sharing’ culture still exists. One of the things I like about being stoned is having a stoner conversation where you get off on weird stories and have a jolly good time with friends.”

In that way, he said, those mild buzzes are really no different than what a person feels after a good alcoholic cocktail.

“I do think the societal acceptance of marijuana is better now,” Davis said. “And you know, I’m also a beer snob and find smoking some weed with a hoppy IPA fits my palate. I would love to be able to go into a place and order a pint and a gram.”

Rusnak feels proven medical success with marijuana coupled with responsible recreational uses are helping destroy some of the negative press the weed has gotten over the years.

“The stereotypes around it — like it being a ‘gateway drug’ — are getting knocked down in a long line of dominos” he said.

As for Lightner, he’s just looking forward to this summer.

“I live close to the water, so people love coming to visit me, and I envision pulling out a cigar box filled with [marijuana] buds and saying, ‘this bud’s for you,’” he said. “I will be the perfect host.”

And, for some, there is still that desire to just catch that buzz with friends.

“I don’t think the social aspect of using marijuana has changed,” Rusnak said. “But I do think there is a new demographic of people who use cannabis for medical and not social reasons, so I think of it as more of an addition to the culture, not a subtraction.”

What has changed and continues to change according to Don Davis, is society’s acceptance of the herb.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.