Growing pot becomes Maine cottage industry

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For 27-year-old Paul McCarrier, selling marijuana pays the bills and grows his career. ┬áBut McCarrier doesn’t meet clients on street corners or in dimly lit parking lots.

As a state-licensed caregiver, the Belfast man runs a legal small business. His profession was created under Maine’s medical marijuana laws, which have grown increasingly beneficial for caregivers since the first measure was approved in 1999.

The number of licensed caregivers has grown to 600 — and that figure is expected to shoot higher after Tuesday, when new rules go into effect that will expand the number of health conditions that can legally be treated with medical marijuana.

In 2009, the state passed an amendment that allows caregivers to serve up to five patients. The new law also removed provisions that restricted medical marijuana patients to those related to or living with the caregiver. The caregivers can own six flowering marijuana plants per patient, and can sell up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana to patients every 15 days.

“We’ve created hundreds of jobs in Maine,” McCarrier said, although that fact likely won’t be touted by the Maine Chamber of Commerce or the state Office of Tourism.

The medical marijuana cottage industry co-exists alongside the eight state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries. Although there’s no official record-keeping of patients, a dispensary official estimated that caregivers serve about 20 percent of the roughly 10,000 marijuana patients statewide.

While the word “caregiver” does not conjure up images of entrepreneurs, in many cases the work not only helps patients, but also provides an income from farming and selling marijuana products.

Caregivers can expect to earn, after expenses, about $30,000 to $50,000 per year, said McCarrier and other caregivers in the business. He is the lobbyist for their trade association, the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine.

Caregiving is not just about selling joints. While they provide buds and joints to patients — usually at about $200 to $300 an ounce — caregivers also make brownies, chocolates, homemade pills, tinctures, oils, creams and other products in kitchens around the state. McCarrier and others in the business say that many patients do not want to smoke marijuana, they are taking it primarily for pain relief.

A PROFITABLE SMALL BUSINESS

In mid-September, caregivers Michele and Frank set about making marijuana chocolates and homemade pills in a kitchen in York County. The two didn’t want to disclose their full names or the exact location of their business because they’re worried about becoming a target for thieves — a widely held concern among caregivers.

The two, who have been in the medical marijuana business together since 2010, stirred coconut oil, melted dark chocolate and ground up marijuana trimmings in a blender.

“The dark chocolate complements the cannabis nicely,” said Michele, smiling while stirring the concoction with a metal whisk.

They both quit their jobs to solely focus on the new venture, and after some initial reluctance because of security fears, they have started telling close friends and family about their new profession.

“A year ago, I would have been terrified to tell anybody,” Michele said. “But if you want to change people’s perceptions of this, you have to talk about it just like you would talk about anything else.”

Frank said that after expenses, they netted $70,000 last year between the two. He said their costs are higher than some because instead of growing at home, as many caregivers do, they spend $2,000 a month to rent a facility to farm the marijuana.

Frank said they had to take out a $75,000 loan to start the business, and because it takes four months from planting the seeds to harvesting the buds for patients, there were some lean times at the beginning.

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