AUGUSTA — Maine’s recreational marijuana market is facing a lab-testing bottleneck as the state moves toward the beginning of retail sales, tentatively set for March, with a proposal to implement its regulations for required testing in two phases.

About a dozen people attended a public hearing on the staggered testing rollout Monday at the Department of Agriculture, with many voicing concerns that proposed rules would elbow out smaller marijuana growers or further spur the black market in Maine.

Maine’s legalization law requires recreational cannabis sold in the state to be tested in Maine. But some who are considering open a testing lab in Maine told regulators that they worry about rapidly shifting regulations, which could leave them holding the bag on investments in the expensive equipment needed to test for everything Maine’s adult-use law requires. Depending on what a lab is expected to test for, equipment costs could range from $250,000 to over $1 million.

“There are so many variables in the space, having those exasperated by unnecessary dramatic changes or vagueness is something that could threaten the ability for a healthy ecosystem of an industry,” Scott Churchill, a chemist and co-founder of MCR Labs, said following the hearing.

Noah Sargent, a laboratory analyst at Nelson Analytical in Kennebunk, the first lab in the state to apply for a state license to test recreational marijuana for safety and potency. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Churchill’s labs, which operate in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, test recreational and medical marijuana, as well as hemp.

The Maine Medical Association calls marijuana contamination “one of the most significant risks” facing the legal market. Threats can range from E. coli poisoning to deadly lung infections, but many of the risks cannot be accurately calculated because federally funded researchers are limited in their ability to study marijuana, much less the contamination risks posed by the many different ways that adults are legally using it in 33 U.S. states.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Maine since 1999, with 50,000 certified patients purchasing $50 million of cannabis a year to treat conditions ranging from glaucoma to AIDS, yet none of it must be tested. Oregon, Washington and Colorado test their medical marijuana for contaminants like mold, residual solvents and bacteria. Maine forbids the use of high-risk pesticides but doesn’t test for them.

Currently, Maine has just one medical marijuana consumer safety law on the books: only minimum-risk pesticides, like cinnamon and peppermint oil, are allowed. But Maine doesn’t release medical cannabis enforcement data, or even the number of times it inspects its eight dispensaries or 2,900 medical caregivers, so it is not clear if anyone has broken the pesticide law or if patients have complained about it. The state has denied repeated requests from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for this information.

The rules being proposed in Maine require all marijuana products to be tested for potency, mold and mildew, harmful microbes and filth before they can be sold to a consumer when Maine’s recreational market opens, tentatively in March.

But testing requirements for pesticides, residual solvents and toxins, and harmful chemicals like lead or mercury would be phased in within 12 months under the most recent rulemaking proposal from the Office of Marijuana Policy.

So far, only one Maine lab has applied to become certified to test marijuana that would be sold in the adult-use market. Another five or so have shown interest but none has yet applied for a license, said Gabi Pierce, an attorney and policy director for the Office of Marijuana Policy, who conducted the public hearing Monday.

Still, Pierce said lab certification, was the “heavier lift” in the two-step process. Without enough labs, growers and processors hoping to enter the adult-use market would have no way to legally get their products to customers.

The staggered rollout of state-mandated testing is not finalized and Monday’s hearing contemplated whether Maine should make its temporary marijuana testing rules permanent. The rules and the phase-in plan are only in effect until February unless the state decides to make them permanent.

The public or other interested parties will have until 5 p.m. on Jan. 6 to submit written testimony on the proposed rules.

Pierce said the state wants to have all the testing requirements in place as quickly as possible, but the law does contemplate the possibility that it will take time to grow lab capacity.

Other states have struggled to license enough labs to test all the marijuana products prepared for sale. Maine has taken steps to avoid that, including licensing testing labs before other marijuana businesses and delaying the most complicated, costly tests until the second year of the market.

Chemists and those who grow or process marijuana for Maine’s medical marijuana industry raised questions Monday about how quickly testing labs could be developed and whether the regulations would be stable enough to warrant the millions of dollars of investment in lab equipment that would be needed to test for residual pesticides, solvents and heavy metals.

Scott Ouellette, who grows medical marijuana and processes tinctures, said he has his products tested for his patients even though it’s not required under Maine’s medical marijuana laws. Though he often waits two or three weeks for the results, Ouellette said he does it because he wants to ensure that what he’s producing is free of toxins or other contaminants.

Ouellette said that if labs aren’t in place to meet the testing requirements under Maine law, consumers and most producers will simply turn to the black market. He said Maine should delay its recreational market until it can show there are enough labs to test all the product.

“They are just trying to rush this out,” Ouellette said. “One of their big things with their mission statement is to protect public safety, but they are going to roll out adult use and not even have contamination testing – it makes no sense.”

He said the proposed regulations, including the testing requirements, will drive prices higher so that the black market will continue to thrive. Reducing some license and testing requirements would allow more people to participate in the legal market, he said.

“Maine has had a strong black market for a long time,” he said. “We should license everybody, make reasonable regulations so everybody can play the game and then we can compete with Main Street and not the black market.”

 

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