KITTERY, Maine — Ingrid Martinez is terminally ill and undergoing chemotherapy. Medical marijuana helps her alleviate her nausea and pain. Martinez, 50, a Lowell resident who worked in medical coding before she got sick, travels to Maine every three weeks or so to buy marijuana.
Although she has a Massachusetts medical marijuana card, she said marijuana costs too much in the Bay State. Martinez had to stop using marijuana at one point because she could not afford it. If she can buy more cheaply in Maine, Martinez said, “It’s there when I need it.”
Although transporting marijuana across state lines is illegal, Martinez is not alone in driving from Massachusetts to Maine to purchase medical marijuana more cheaply. Since Maine first started accepting Massachusetts medical marijuana cards in late August, stores near the border have seen an influx in customers.
That influx increased after Massachusetts officials banned the sale of all vaping products other than those used by medical marijuana patients to vaporize crushed flower.
Pam Edwards, owner of Your Green Thumb Caregivers in Kittery, less than a half-hour drive from northeastern Massachusetts, estimates that 30% of her business is Massachusetts residents.
“What I hear over and over again is we have better product, more variety of products, better prices,” Edwards said. “People rub their eyes when they see the prices compared to what they’re seeing in Massachusetts.”
One recent day, online menus for Your Green Thumb Caregivers listed one-eighth of an ounce of flower for between $20 and $50, while Patriot Care in Lowell listed the same quantity for $50. NETA in Brookline was selling a chocolate bar with 100 mg of THC for $30, while Green Truck Farms in North Berwick, Maine, was selling a chocolate bar with 300 mg of THC for $25. Your Green Thumb Caregivers had more than 35 options for flower, while Alternative Therapies Group in Salem had a dozen.
Price of Weed, a website that crowdsources marijuana prices in different states, on Friday listed the average cost of medium-quality marijuana as $282 per ounce in Massachusetts and $232 per ounce in Maine.
Sam Tracy, government relations director at multistate cannabis company 4Front Ventures, estimates that prices are around half in Maine of what they are in Massachusetts. Tracy lives in Maine, and 4Front Ventures does business in Massachusetts.
Mike Crawford, a medical marijuana patient and advocate, drives from the North Shore to Your Green Thumb Caregivers every few weeks. “The first time I left there, I never smiled so much from going with a legal purchase,” Crawford said. “It felt like Christmas for me.”
Crawford said there are more price options in the Maine stores, depending on quality. “I find the lowest tier product in Maine is better than what you get in Massachusetts. It’s the difference between a Budweiser and a craft beer,” he said.
Shaun Walsh of Newburyport said he can pay $10 or $15 for 100 milligrams of THC in a marijuana edible in Maine, compared to $40 or more in Massachusetts. He called the quality in Maine “far superior.”
The Maine marijuana market is different from the one in Massachusetts. The Bay State has strict regulations requiring medical marijuana companies to grow and manufacture their own products and governing all aspects of sales.
Maine has eight state-licensed dispensaries, which tend to be larger businesses. But state law also has a separate category for “caregivers,” or small-scale independent growers.
The laws governing caregivers have changed since Maine first legalized medical marijuana in 1999. But as of December 2018, caregivers are allowed to open a retail store and serve an unlimited number of patients. And although there is a limit to the number of plants they can grow, caregivers can buy products from other caregivers.
A reporter visited five medical marijuana shops in southern Maine, ranging from a boutique storefront to a trailer to an industrial warehouse with a strong marijuana odor.
Your Green Thumb Caregivers is a small shop off a main road, next door to a smoke shop. The owner’s dog lolled around the shop and music played in the background as a steady stream of customers shopped. Customers walked in, showed identification and a medical card, and browsed a selection of flower, vapes, edibles and accessories like marijuana-themed greeting cards and T-shirts. The store has its own marijuana growing facility upstairs, and it purchases products from more than a dozen other caregivers.
A minute down the road, caregiver Clay Wyman runs Southern Maine Apothecary out of a tiny room off the kitchen of his house.
“I’m a one-man show,” Wyman said. “I do growing, run the retail store. My overhead’s low, I don’t have employees I have to pay other than my bills.”
Wyman gets around 20 patients a day. On an average day, around a quarter of them come from Massachusetts, he says. That number has increased since the vape ban went into effect. “They typically come for vape cartridges and when they find out what we have for quality and price, they keep coming back,” Wyman said.
Sweet Dirt in Eliot, Maine, markets environmentally friendly, organic marijuana, grown in live soil and certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Sam Wiese, retail team leader at Sweet Dirt, said that, before the Massachusetts vape ban, maybe one in ten customers came from Massachusetts. Now, it’s closer to three in ten.
Rebecca Henry, of Sweet Dirt, says the dispensary requires all Massachusetts patients to provide their Massachusetts medical card and sign a waiver saying they agree to use the drug in Maine only. “We have received, from our MA patients, feedback that our pricing and quality is better, perhaps because Maine’s medical program is more mature,” Henry wrote in an email.
Tracy, of 4Front Ventures, said Maine marijuana is cheaper partially because the market is more mature, and growers have had 20 years to develop expertise legally.
It is also much easier to open a business in Maine. The license fee for a Maine caregiver who wants to grow up to 30 mature plants and 60 immature plants, the maximum allowed, is $1,200. The fee to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Massachusetts is $30,000 plus a $1,500 application fee. Maine does not have testing or packaging requirements for medical marijuana caregivers, the way Massachusetts does.
“A lot of those more public health-focused regulations that Massachusetts had in terms of testing requirements and things like that are just not really present in Maine,” Tracy said.
Josh Ferranto spent six years growing medical marijuana in Maine as a caregiver and now works for a Massachusetts company, Silver Therapeutics, that is working to open three marijuana stores. He said the biggest difference he sees is in regulation, since the barriers to entry in Maine are much lower than in Massachusetts.
“Anyone that’s buying medical cannabis in Massachusetts is buying it from a company where they’ve invested multiple millions of dollars into their cultivation facility and extraction labs and commercial kitchens,” Ferranto said. “In Maine, there’s eight larger dispensaries that are more like the Massachusetts model, then someone with a medical caregiver license can essentially grow cannabis in their home and sell it on the medical market.”
Ferranto noted that the lack of testing “is a dice roll” since buyers must make sure their source is reliable.
Some customers acknowledge the public health risks.
Diana, who would not give her last name, said she started coming from Peabody to Maine to buy vape cartridges after they were banned in Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, she said, buying medical marijuana feels more like she is getting a medical prescription, and the label tells her exactly what she is taking. In Maine, she said, “You’re taking more of a chance.”
There is also a legal risk. In addition to crossing state lines, customers driving from Kittery back toward Boston must drive through a short stretch of New Hampshire, which has not legalized marijuana.
But it is a difficult law to enforce. “They’re not stopping every car on the New Hampshire border trying to inspect them to see if they’re bringing cannabis across state lines,” Tracy said.
Nichole Snow, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, which represents medical marijuana patients, said the group “highly advises against going up there solely for bringing back products, because it’s still against the law.”
Crawford, the patient and advocate from the North Shore, said he does not know anyone who has gotten in trouble, and he personally does not think the risk of getting stopped is high. But, he said, “I caution people to know the law. It’s up to them. It’s their risk.”