Manager Joel Emery, left, owner Tyler Johnson, center, and budtender Lucas Bundy, right, hold the "open" sign to Meristem, Hancock County's first and currently only recreational marijuana shop. Credit: Courtesy of Tyler Johnson

Hancock County is reflecting a statewide trend that has seen Maine embrace recreational marijuana more slowly than some in the industry expected when sales started in late 2020.

The coastal county saw its first recreational marijuana store open this year, and the new year could bring growth. However, even as two more Hancock County towns consider allowing marijuana retailers, the businesses still aren’t allowed to open in most of the county, including in the population center of Ellsworth.

Meristem, the only recreational store in the county, quietly opened its doors in Southwest Harbor in July. Since then, business has been steady, but definitely not the “green rush” that some anticipated, said Tyler Johnson, who owns the business with his wife Natasha.

“We kind of made the conscious decision to not advertise and open with a lot of fanfare,” he said.

Johnson’s family has run the Liquor Locker in Southwest Harbor for years, and the store has become known for its selection of beer, wine and liquor. Johnson, who grew up on Mount Desert Island, hoped that the new marijuana business would develop a similar reputation, making a grand opening and intensive marketing unnecessary.

“We just try to do things in a way that separates us from the rest,” he said.

While there is some interest in new marijuana businesses, no explosion is expected in the near future.

The City Council in Ellsworth, the county’s largest municipality, held a workshop in September about retail marijuana stores, but since then, the possibility of allowing the businesses has not come back up, and it’s unclear whether it’ll show up on an agenda again anytime soon.  

But at least two towns in the area are actively considering how to regulate recreational marijuana businesses, spurred by local citizen initiatives.

A group of voters filed a petition in Bar Harbor last month that, if approved, would allow for two stores in town.

The petition was filed by Derrick Sekulich and is backed by Tree of Life Day Spa, a local spa interested in opening a recreational store in the downtown area.

The proposed changes would only allow stores in the town’s retail zones, and buildings would need to be located at least 1,000 feet from schools and 500 feet from the College of the Atlantic, Mount Desert Island Hospital, religious buildings, daycares and any other marijuana store.

Although Bar Harbor hasn’t opted into retail sales, Sekulich said that doesn’t mean there is no cannabis in the tourist hotspot.

“Marijuana is here in the town,” Sekulich told the council at it’s Dec. 21 meeting. “Whether we accept rec stores, it’s here.”

The council plans to hold a public hearing on the proposal in January.

Surry is one step ahead in that process. The town voted to allow retail businesses in 2020. It’s now taking a look at how it wants to craft its marijuana regulations.

“We have only just begun the process and gathered some citizens to help develop this ordinance,” said Bill Barker, chair of the Planning Board. “We are looking at several other towns that have already passed ordinances on marijuana as a guide as well.”

Unlike in Bar Harbor, there are no potential businesses approaching Surry, which gives the town time to tailor regulations to its needs, said Betsy Armstrong, chair of the Board of Selectmen.

“We’re hoping by town meeting in April we’ll have something to vote [on],” she said.

Before Meristem opened, the closest recreational stores for most in the region were in the Bangor area. Six months into the venture, Johnson said, Meristem’s customer base so far has been a mix of locals and tourists, and a set of older clients who are returning to marijuana. He said he’s hoping to bring a better understanding of marijuana to the area through the business.

“There just needs to be more education about cannabis culture,” he said. “I’m happy with the trajectory of the business for sure, but there needs to be more organic awareness in the area.”