A worker at the SeaWeed Co. cannabis manufacturing facility in Auburn measures out exactly 3.5 ounces of smoking-grade marijuana before sealing it in a glass jar. The exact strain was Chocolate O. G. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s recreational pot business is ready for a boom, but is only experiencing a slow burn.

There’s plenty of retail consumer demand but the licensing process is slow, making raw materials scarce. That, in turn, slows down the manufacturing pipeline and makes for empty shelves in retail stores.

“It’s supply and demand at its worst,” said Dave Page, owner of Coastal Cannabis in Damariscotta.

Page was ready to open his store on Oct. 9, the first day of legal recreational sales in Maine, but couldn’t find enough product for his shelves. He eventually opened a month later after sourcing enough merchandise.

“We’re still really struggling to get edibles and concentrates,” Page said. “They’re really in short supply — but I suspect it’s temporary.”

Page, who ran nearby Big Dave’s convenience store for 25 years before getting into the weed business, believes there’ll be more adult-use pot products available as soon as more cultivation and manufacturing licenses are granted by the state. That process can, however, be a complicated, year-long exercise.

According to Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy website, as of Wednesday, the state had issued 13 adult-use cultivation licenses, with 175 more in various application stages. Likewise, there are eight active manufacturing licenses and 66 in progress.

There are 12 licensed adult-use recreational retail stores with 216 waiting for applications to be processed. The state’s Office of Marijuana Policy has up to 90 days to make a decision on the applications and is currently completing this work in 45 to 60 days, according to David Heidrich, director of engagement and community outreach for the agency.

But several factors can make the high number of outstanding applications seem like a backlog.

“Compared to the medical program, adult-use licensing is a far more thorough and robust process, but the length of time necessary to complete the process is often dependent upon the preparation of each individual applicant,” Heidrich said.

Also, initial, conditional licenses are only valid for a year and may not be renewed if applicants can’t find a suitable place to operate. Other applications may be on hold while applicants lobby municipalities to opt into the recreational-use program.

From left (clockwise): Cannabis plants grow under special lights at the SeaWeed Co. manufacturing facility in Auburn; Eric Gordon, director of extraction at the SeaWeed Co. cannabis manufacturing facility in Auburn, shines a light through a new beaker of resin oil, made from fresh, frozen marijuana; Zach Hillman checks on cannabis shatter during the curing process at the SeaWeed Co. manufacturing facility in Auburn. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Margaret D’Amour is the retail manager at the SeaWeed Co. store on Running Hill Road in South Portland. The store opened on Oct. 9, the day recreational sales became legal. D’Amour said business has been steady.

“Maine has been waiting for this for a long time,” she said, “And people are traveling here from all over the country, too — which is good but I hope they’re being mindful of the virus.”

D’Amour said her store is seeing a lot of first-time customers who hadn’t previously obtained cannabis products through the medical program. Many of those customers are looking for cannabis they don’t have to smoke. A recent shipment of sweet edibles sold out in just a few days.

“There’s not a lot of edibles manufacturers in Maine right now,” she said. “We hope to have a bigger variety by the end of the year.”

Kaspar Heinrici, business development manager at SeaWeed Co. in Auburn, opens the door to a growing room where cannabis plants thrive under special lights. The company makes retail marijuana products for its own retail sales, as well as wholesale products for other companies. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

An aggravating factor in the supply chain is that cannabis has to go from seed to finished product all within Maine’s state boundaries. Moving it across state lines in quantity is still a federal offense.

Scott Howard is principal owner of the SeaWeed Co., including its manufacturing arm. Howard’s company was ready to manufacture adult recreational-use products a full year before the state allowed it. Instead of waiting, SeaWeed started making medical cannabis products.

“Business is good,” he said. “Recreational sales are not as big as the medicinal market yet — that’s because there’s not a lot of product to extract.”

SeaWeed’s primary business is extracting essential oils and active ingredients from raw cannabis for use in value-added products like vape juice, shatter and sauce. It does not make edibles.

SeaWeed has a small cultivation operation but relies on business partners for the bulk of its raw materials, which are fresh frozen.

Cecilia Hawes puts exactly one gram of a cannabis extract known as diamonds and sauce into a container at the Sea Weed Co. brand manufacturing facility in Auburn. The product is meant to be dabbed, which is a kind of high-temperature vaporizing. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“There will be more recreational demand once everything gets up to full speed,” Howard said.

The Office of Marijuna Policy’s latest sales figures cover the month of October. In that first month, they clocked just more than $1 million in statewide retail purchases, accounting for $107,394 in sales tax. Updated numbers for the month of November should be available next week.

Howard believes the future of the recreational cannabis business is bright, if a little hazy.

“My goal, from day one, has been the adult-use market but we really have no idea what this business will look like, there are so few licenses,” he said. “It’s fun and exciting, though, and the growth potential is there — for the state, as a whole.”

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Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.