An arrangement of cannabis strains at a recent "jar takeover" hosted by Atlantic Farms, Lodestar Cannabis and Noble Barbecue. Jar takeovers and other parties are the latest in a wave of collaborations the cannabis world has forged with mainstream food industry culture. Credit: Courtesy of Noble Barbecue

PORTLAND, Maine — When a medical marijuana dispensary opened in a former filling station last year, it was initially billed as a place for “cheap gas and great grass.”

Maine’s cannabis culture is evolving and quickly becoming a key ingredient in Maine’s nightlife. Years may pass before the stigma is fully erased, but collaborations between mainstream culture and the “green new world” are broadening Mainers’ understanding. It’s bringing a long underground culture into the daylight.

Enter cannabis parties — semi-exclusive events complete with plenty of artisanal food and live DJs playing rhythmic music. These private parties are already happening in Maine, and they look a lot like the ones that helped elevate Maine breweries and tasting rooms more than a decade ago. But there’s no looming hangover.

Atlantic Farms, the dispensary that gave new life to an old gas station in Portland last year, throws monthly cannabis parties, inviting local cannabis caregivers for Q&A sessions hosted at a remote location such as an American Legion.

Credit: Courtesy of Noble Barbecue

Borrowing from the beer world where bars let local breweries conduct “tap takeovers,” Atlantic Farms calls its parties “jar takeovers” to spotlight new strains of cannabis. No business transactions are conducted, and the parties are attended mostly by Atlantic Farms’ certified clients, said a spokesperson.

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And when partygoers get hungry, there’s always a number of food trucks parked outside the event.

So how do these parties operate under the complex and sometimes confusing cannabis laws?

First some background.

Today, patients with certified medical cards can legally walk into a dispensary and order a cannabis-infused product. And when adult-use laws go into effect in 2020, in select municipalities in Maine, others will be able to freely do so in approved retail stores.

But in either case, they won’t be able to consume those products onsite.

Credit: Nick Schroeder

“I can make all the medicated treats in the world, but nobody is supposed to consume any treats in my building,” said Elliott Lee, a kitchen manager and caregiver with Canuvo, a medical dispensary in Biddeford.

But there’s a window of opportunity that many in the industry are looking to explore. As cannabis regulations relax and kitchen workers leave the restaurant industry for “the green rush,” some enterprising restaurateurs are already eyeing legal loopholes that could test the limits of the law and evolve into a new kind of “cush cuisine.”

One of those entrepreneurs is Brian Grossman of Farm to Coast Mobile Kitchen, who has explored the idea of “small-dosing” the coconut-milk steamed buns he currently sells from his food truck. Noble Barbecue, which is planning to make THC- and CBD-infused bottled barbecue sauce available for the holiday season, has a similar idea. Recognizing that most cannabis products are sweet, the products would appeal to those with more savory palates.

“You couldn’t have a restaurant serving it,” Grossman said. “But everything has a gray area.”

David Heidrich from the Office of Marijuana Policy said it’s also illegal in Maine to serve cannabis-infused treats or snacks from food trucks — retailers can only conduct such activities from a fixed location. But licensed caregivers can operate out of a storefront or by offering delivery services to qualifying patients.

The law also states that a person 21 and older may consume marijuana products “on private property not generally accessible by the public, and the person is explicitly permitted to consume marijuana or marijuana products on the property by the owner of the property.” That leaves the door open to some private events, as long as no one sells any products directly.

So while Grossman conceded that his “cannabuns” might not ever make it to his food truck’s menu, he might be able to find a way to serve them, in some fashion, at private cannabis functions.

“Everyone associates food trucks with the munchies because food trucks are known for their diverse and delicious foods,” said Joe Coppolino, who founded Biddeford dispensary Kind Guys last year. “There’s the convenience of a quick lunch or dinner while you’re shopping for your products.”

With 3,500 caregivers in the state and not that many inspectors, one caregiver familiar with the cannabis laws said that there are a lot of legal gray areas, if not gray areas of understanding. Advocates say it’s important to observe state regulations in good faith, yet recognize the possibilities — both social and entrepreneurial — that lurk at the edges. It might just be a matter of time before cannabis and food trucks collide to create the next evolution in the Maine culinary scene.