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A Cannabis Gift Economy Grows in Maine as Recreational Sales Face Further Delays

Just like in D.C. and Massachusetts, new Maine businesses are offering “free” weed in exchange for donations or service fees.

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Cannabis “gifting” businesses have sprung up in Maine to meet the demand of residents who are legally allowed to smoke weed to their hearts' content, but still aren’t permitted to buy it. Voters in the Pine Tree State approved recreational legalization via a ballot measure back in 2016, but conservative state legislators have been working with Gov. Paul LePage to continually delay the rollout of retail sales.

Last year, lawmakers enacted a moratorium on retail sales in order to have time to create a system to tax, license, and regulate the retail pot market. Gov. LePage, who opposes legalization entirely, proposed that retail sales be pushed all the way back until 2019 — which may ultimately be the case, as Maine’s legislature failed last month to both extend the formal moratorium on legal sales or pass a regulated sales bill, leaving the state of Maine’s marijuana market up in the air until state lawmakers can reach an agreement.

The delays in establishing a proper retail market leaves Maine in a legal grey area where there is great demand for recreational cannabis, but no approved way to access it. Many residents are still purchasing pot on the black market, but over the past year, a few brave entrepreneurs have kickstarted new companies that are providing “free” cannabis products in exchange for donations or service fees. For a donation of $75 to $100, a Maine resident can now acquire some herb without needing to grow it themselves.

Portland-based Greenlyght has a different spin on gifting, delivering a quarter-ounce of weed to any adult for free, but with a $90 delivery charge. “We legalized marijuana in Maine, said it’s OK to smoke, but it’s been a year now and we still don’t have any stores selling recreational marijuana,” Greenlyght founder Bret Jackson explained to the Portland Press Herald. “That is kind of ridiculous, but it’s also what I call a business opportunity. Now you don’t have to grow your own, and you don’t have to know a guy who grows, because that’s not always an option, you know? You just have to know somebody like me who knows a guy. I connect the dots.”

The voter-approved Marijuana Legalization Act allows adults to give up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis to another adult for free, and these new operators are using the rule as a loophole to legitimize their gifting businesses. State legislators argue that these businesses are completely illegal, however, as customers still end up paying full price for their “free” weed. Yet so far, state police have been loath to crack down on them; in fact, many local cops don't even know that gifting is happening in the state, according to Robert Schwartz, director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

If LePage succeeds in delaying retail sales until 2019 or beyond, Maine might see its gifting economy grow to rival those of Washington, D.C or Massachusetts. The legal weed market in the nation's capital also exists in a grey area where marijuana possession is legal, but sales are prohibited. Numerous businesses have sprung up to deliver “free” ganja to anyone who makes a donation, or to provide free weed at gifting events along with the purchase of baseball hats or other novelty items.

In Massachusetts, adult-use cannabis has been legal since 2016, but regulations for sales are still being devised ahead of a planned launch this summer, creating a similar grey area where Bay State businesses have given cannabis as a “free sample” in tandem with a club entry fee or as a “gift” alongside a purchase of juice or cookies.

Unlike Maine law enforcement, D.C. cops have been cracking down on gifting businesses over the past year. Cops have already arrested over 30 people for illegally gifting weed at cannabis events this year, and city officials have revoked the business and alcohol licenses of venues which have hosted these events. It remains to be seen whether Maine's grey market will grow large enough to warrant police intervention before legislators finally allow fully-licensed retail sales to begin.

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