Sales fell at Maine’s medical marijuana dispensaries for the second time in two years, a reflection of increased and sometimes unfair competition, the dispensary owners say.

In 2018, overall sales at the state’s eight licensed dispensaries dropped to $23.5 million, down 4.1 percent from 2017 and 12.8 percent from 2016, when dispensary sales peaked at $26.6 million, according to new state tax data.

Dispensary owners say the increased competition stems from some patients learning to grow their own plants to use as medicine, while others are browsing the marketplace, shopping at one of Maine’s many caregiver stores or using illegal delivery services. New regulations for medical and adult-use marijuana under consideration by the state will likely impose controls on the non-dispensary providers of cannabis products and help level the playing field.

Until then, the unregulated competition is forcing dispensaries to cut prices, driving down annual revenue even more.

“The market is still capped to only those that have a certificate, and now the number of ‘stores’ people can shop in has increased greatly,” said Sage Peterson, CEO of Canuvo in Biddeford, noting her company’s sales have been flat for the last two years.

Wellness Connection, which runs four Maine dispensaries, has seen a dramatic market change. “We’ve seen many more people grow for themselves,” CEO Patricia Rosi said. “While we do appreciate Augusta’s thorough effort to implement the adult-use program, the delay has created unregulated and illegal competition for Maine’s highly regulated dispensaries.”

Voters approved the legalization of adult-use marijuana in a 2016 referendum, but Maine is struggling to roll out legal sales, enduring legislative rewrites, gubernatorial vetoes and contested contracts. Insiders predict adult-use sales are still a year out.

Some medical marijuana consumers left the market with plans to migrate to adult-use stores. The delay has prompted some to return, but others have turned to illegal delivery services until adult-use sales begin. Others are shopping at one of a growing number of caregiver shops.

TOTAL SALES AND GUESSWORK

Maine doesn’t track caregiver sales taxes as it does with dispensaries, so it’s impossible to gauge the size of that market. The 2,900-member network is spread out among different tax categories, ranging from farmers to pharmacists, making it difficult to track as a group.

Catherine Lewis, the head of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, can’t put an exact dollar value on the caregiver market, but based on what her members say, she thinks it is still growing. She believes total caregiver sales now top total dispensary sales.

If true, that would mean Maine’s medical market is holding steady at about $50 million.

However, national cannabis market analysts believe that estimate is too small, and put Maine’s total medical cannabis sales closer to $65 million in 2018. BDS Analytics of Colorado comes up with its estimate using real-time sales data from other states and patient counts.

No other medical market in the United States has dipped before adult-use sales began, BDS senior analyst Michael Arrington said. But once those adult-use sales did begin, those states’ medical markets shrank, he said.

Using the $65 million estimate, BDS believes Maine’s medical market is actually growing, up 14 percent from $57 million in 2017, which would mean that the non-dispensary share of the medical market in Maine is really booming.

Without caregiver sales tax data or a solid patient count – Maine doesn’t have a patient registry, so it only tracks how many patient certificates it prints, including duplicates – it can be hard to draw solid conclusions about market performance.

But the growth in the overall caregiver market – whether it’s the conservative estimate by Lewis or the higher one by BDS – doesn’t mean caregivers are sharing equally in the bounty. Home-based operations are facing increased competition from caregiver shops.

Even Lewis, who has a shop in Winthrop and is opening one in Hallowell, said her sales have dipped. Fewer people are walking through the door and when they do, they are paying prices that Lewis has lowered to stay competitive with other caregiver stores.

The state won’t release its annual medical marijuana report until April, so there’s no way to know for sure, but Lewis predicts the number of caregivers went down in 2018. A growing number of those who remain, however, opened shops and served more people. Some areas of Maine probably have reached a saturation point, with the amount of medical marijuana available for sale sometimes exceeding the demand, but patients in rural areas still lack access to cannabis medicine, Lewis said.

WELCOME REGULATIONS

Lewis believes the medical market will survive the upcoming rollout of adult-use sales, which is not expected to occur until late 2019 or early 2020. Patients will seek out medical specialty products, wellness counseling and tax breaks only available with a medical card.

She has recently started getting customers under the new medical marijuana law that allows a doctor to certify a patient for marijuana use for any medical benefit, not just those diagnosed with a list of pre-approved conditions. She hopes that customer base will grow.

Peterson agrees with Lewis. Like Maine’s other dispensaries, Canuvo is waiting for the state to complete its rollout of adult-use sales, which the dispensaries are positioned to capitalize on as already established businesses with a built-in brand and client base.

But Canuvo, Wellness and the other dispensaries also are eager for Maine to roll out the testing and seed-to-sale tracking rules brought on by the launch of adult-use sales. The state is likely to apply these to medical businesses, too – including caregivers.

At Curaleaf, an Auburn dispensary formerly known as Remedy Compassion Center, sales fell during the first three quarters of 2018, but picked up at the end of the year after institution of a customer loyalty program, said Scott Reed, the company’s president.

Fourth-quarter year-over-year sales showed “single-digit growth,” he said. That has grown into “double-digit growth” in year-over-year sales so far in the first quarter of 2019, something that he considers a homecoming of sorts for Curaleaf’s longtime customers.

“We saw a decline for a while, but ultimately our past patients have returned along with a significant increase in new patients,” Reed said. “We had patients who wanted the freedom to shop around. They went out and explored the caregiver storefronts, the gifting services, but we are now seeing them return.”

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

[email protected]

This story was updated at 7:30 a.m. Feb. 14 to clarify competition’s impact on revenue.


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