A sign hangs from the side of Cannabis Cured's Bangor building, on April 22, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Cannabis Cured in Bangor has one entrance if you’re a patient in Maine’s medical marijuana program, and another if you’re simply a recreational customer.

You’ll find essentially the same products whether you’re on the store’s medical or recreational side. But you’ll find different employees and different prices on each side. The two sides are separated by a wall that was required to completely divide the businesses.

“There isn’t really a huge difference between our products,” said Brooke McLaughlin, Cannabis Cured’s Bangor regional manager.

But there’s a significant difference in the rules that apply on either side of the wall.

On the recreational side, employees have to be fingerprinted and pass background checks under state regulations, and a certain number of employees must be in the store at any given time, McLaughlin said. All of the recreational products have to be tracked in a state data system and tested for contaminants to ensure that customers are buying untainted marijuana.

Caption: Left to right, An employee helps a patient cash out at Cannabis Cured’s medicinal storefront in Bangor, April 22, 2022. The inside of Cannabis Cured’s recreational marijuana storefront, April 22, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus | BDN

On the medical side, none of those requirements apply.

The store reflects a reality of Maine’s legal marijuana program. While the medical and recreational marijuana markets offer up products from the same plant, the medical market is subject to significantly less regulation and scrutiny than its newer recreational counterpart. There’s no required testing of medical products.

The lack of regulation on the medical side makes it more vulnerable to criminal activity, said Erik Gundersen, director of Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy.

The disparity in regulation came to light last year after a licensed Maine medical marijuana caregiver, Lucas Sirois, was accused of illegally selling $13 million in marijuana that was ostensibly part of the state’s medical program to non-medical patients across state lines and in Maine. More than a dozen people were charged as part of Sirois’ operation, including current and former law enforcement officers, a former selectman and a former prosecutor.

“There’s just a severe void of any transparency or accountability within the medical program, and to assume that there’s not a lot of illicit activity happening is just kind of misguided,” Gundersen said. “But we’ve continued to advocate for regulations that make sense for all stakeholder groups.”

The marijuana policy office, which was created in 2019, the year before the state started allowing recreational marijuana retailers to open, has sought to add more regulation to Maine’s much older medical marijuana program. But those changes have proven difficult to make, Gundersen said.

Advocates for the medical marijuana program have resisted more stringent regulation, and they’ve often found allies in the state Legislature. Lawmakers last year rejected regulations from the Office of Marijuana Policy that would have implemented a “seed-to-sale” tracking system for medical marijuana that’s in place for recreational pot.

“It certainly behooves us as the agency to continue to ring that bell and call attention to it, saying, ‘Hey, there are some deficiencies within this program that we think we can improve upon,’” Gundersen said.

Gundersen said there is undoubtedly more criminal activity happening, and more stringent regulations could help. Additionally, more regulation could help ensure the safety and quality of medical marijuana products, he said.

Advocates for medical marijuana program participants in Maine, however, fear that more regulation would increase costs, making medical products less accessible, said Paul McCarrier, a member of the Maine Craft Cannabis Association, an industry group, and a member of the Medical Marijuana Workgroup that works with the Office of Marijuana Policy on regulations. 

Marijuana sits on display on the recreational side of Cannabis Cured’s Bangor location, April 22, 2022. This same strain of marijuana is available in medicinal storefront on the other side of the wall from the recreational side. Credit: Sawyer Loftus | BDN

“When we don’t have any data that is saying that there needs to be this heavier level of regulation, that not only is going to increase costs for the businesses, it is going to increase costs for the patients,” McCarrier said.

Cases like Sirois’ are rare and often detract from the medical marijuana program’s successes, he said.  

“That, obviously, is what is going to get a lot of attention,” McCarrier said. “What’s being ignored, is the fact that we have a program that’s been operating for 12 years with really minimal problems.”

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...