Maine’s top marijuana official said Tuesday that he believes there’s more illegal activity connected to the state’s medical marijuana industry and that his office has few tools to prevent medical cannabis from finding its way to the black market.
The comments from Erik Gundersen, director of the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy, came on the heels of charges that became public two weeks ago against 13 people accused of orchestrating the illegal sale of $13 million in medical marijuana grown in western Maine to those outside the medical marijuana program both in Maine and outside the state. Current and former cops, a town manager and a former selectman are among the 13 charged in the massive Farmington-based operation.
While the vast majority of caregivers in the medical marijuana industry are following the rules, there is illicit activity occurring within it, Gundersen told the Maine Legislature’s Marijuana Advisory Commission.
“It’s an economics thing. You can do quick, back-of-the-napkin math,” Gundersen said. “I would imagine it’s easy to veer into the more gray area.”
But the marijuana policy office has taken the approach of expanding access to regulated, legal markets in Maine rather than a more law enforcement-oriented approach, Gundersen said. That approach has been informed by feedback from the Legislature and those in the industry, he said.
When the office proposed a “seed-to-sale” tracking system as part of a larger series of regulations for Maine’s medical marijuana industry in January, the industry responded with almost universal opposition.
Those rules never came to pass after the Legislature voted to effectively stop them and require the office to consult with medical marijuana caregivers and patients before changing regulations. Lawmakers also subjected most future rules from the office to the Legislature’s approval.
The charges stemming from the western Maine operation have brought attention back to those decisions earlier this year, prompting criticism from Scott Gagnon, who is the public health representative for the Marijuana Advisory Commission and among the people to question Gundersen on Tuesday.
“It’s been weakly regulated at best,” Gagnon said of Maine’s medical marijuana industry last week. “The ingredients are all there for this to be able to happen.”
Though law enforcement hasn’t been the explicit goal of the Office of Marijuana Policy, the last few weeks — as well as another illicit operation for which a Lewiston man drew a six-year federal sentence earlier this year — showed that the office needed to take a multi-pronged approach, Gundersen said.
Gundersen’s statements show that while the office is taking the Farmington ring seriously, it is acutely aware of the constraints around regulating an industry that has fiercely resisted oversight. The Office of Marijuana Policy did not respond to multiple attempts for comment about the charges last week.
The office has fewer ways to regulate the medical use market than the recreational market for which retail sales started just last year, Gundersen said. It would be helpful if there were tools to ensure that cannabis grown in the medical program stayed within it, he said.
He noted the ability for Maine’s two cannabis programs to bleed into the state’s “traditional market,” referring to the black market for marijuana that continues to flourish across the state even after legalization.
“Right now, it’s just a lack of transparency tools to be able to define what the markets are,” Gundersen said.
Black markets have continued to exist in other states that have legalized marijuana as well. In California, which legalized medical and recreational marijuana long before most other states, the illicit market continues to dominate the trade.
“It’s certainly one of the underlying objectives of a legalized market to eradicate the traditional market,” Gundersen said. “And that’s one of the things that I think, here in Maine, we’re struggling with.”
While the Office of Marijuana Policy has 12 field investigators, Gundersen said that wasn’t sufficient for performing the necessary level of oversight when the investigators are only getting to registrants every four to five years. Even then, they might not be able to identify illicit activity, he said.
The office notices or receives reports of illicit activity within the industry frequently, Gundersen said. The office immediately refers those reports to law enforcement, then its level of involvement in the investigation depends on the case.
“There’s a direct handoff to local law enforcement,” Gundersen said. “It’s really a coin flip if there’s any type of follow-up with the Office of Marijuana Policy.”