Erik Gundersen, who has led the Office of Marijuana Policy since its inception, will step down Friday.
In this May 23, 2019, file photo, Dick Thompson, left, and Erik Gundersen of the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy, listen to testimony at a hearing in Portland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The first director of Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy, who oversaw the introduction of adult-use sales across the state, will leave his position.

Erik Gundersen will leave his role Friday to pursue a national consulting opportunity, Department of Administrative and Financial Services spokesperson Sharon Huntley said Wednesday. He had led the office since its inception in 2019. His deputy, Vern Malloch, a former Portland deputy police chief, will lead the agency in the interim until a replacement is found.

As director, Gundersen oversaw licensing and regulation of the state’s cannabis industry. It is far from a simple task, especially given marijuana’s complex legal standing. It is allowed in Maine due to referendums in 1999 and 2016 but is federally illegal.

Adult-use recreational sales passed by less than 1 percentage point here in a 2016 referendum, the slimmest margin for any state legalizing marijuana that way. In the aftermath, Gundersen ran point on an arduous process to codify rules for recreational sales, culminating in Gov. Janet Mills signing a framework into law in mid-2019.

The beginning of sales was hampered by the hesitancy of many Maine communities to opt into allowing recreational sales and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sales finally began in October 2020 and have grown since. The $98 million in retail sales from January to August has already surpassed last year’s $82 million, according to state data.

During his tenure, he has also had to deal with concerns about illegal sale of medical marijuana, including a Franklin County operation that saw a town manager, prosecutor and multiple police officers face federal charges. Earlier efforts by Gundersen and the office to place a more stringent seed-to-sale tracking system on medical marijuana — a system in place for recreational pot — was rejected by the Legislature after industry opposition.

Gundersen, who grew up in Bangor, previously served as vice chair of the Maine Democratic Party and as an adviser to former Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.