Staffers rearrange displays Friday in the Wellness Connection of Maine medical marijuana dispensary in Gardiner. Beginning Saturday, the store will transition to selling adult-use recreational marijuana products. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

GARDINER — On Saturday the Wellness Connection of Maine, which has been a medical marijuana dispensary and has advocated strongly for medical marijuana, is shifting to an adult-use marijuana retail store at its Gardiner location.

“We like to think of it as we’re opening up to anyone 21 or older,” Charlie Langston, managing partner for Wellness Connection of Maine, said Friday. “Functionally, we’re trying to make sure that there’s really no difference for our existing customers.”

This is the second of the company’s four outlets to make the change and take advantage Maine’s fledgling adult-use marijuana market. Just a month after the market launched, the South Portland store opened as an adult-use store under the HighNorth by Wellness Connection name.

Under state law, marijuana outlets can offer either medical cannabis or adult-use cannabis products, but not both. Langston said the solution for Wellness Connection was to increase availability of cannabis products by making the switch but providing a discount to medical marijuana cardholders.

“Our patients have been with us for so many years, so we’re adjusting pricing for them so they basically don’t see any difference,” Langston said.

While the regulations for medical and adult-use cannabis products differ greatly, Langston said the company has taken a conservative approach in its offerings. It has avoided the allowed higher dosages of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, in its medical marijuana edibles. So the products it offers won’t differ widely.

But the prices will. Because the two cannabis markets are treated differently, the products sold are priced differently. In the adult-use market, an excise tax is imposed on the transfer of flower out of cultivation to the next step, whether it’s for sale or manufacturing. The sales tax on adult-use products is 10%, not the 5.5% sales tax imposed on other products in the state.

To preserve pricing for medical customers, Langston said, the difference will come out of the margin on the adult-use products, which they hope will be able to subsidize the medical side.

“This market is so new,” he said. “It’s very difficult to see where pricing will end up. We’re just coming into Maine’s busy tourist season, so it’ll be interesting to see how everything flows this summer.”

Shop manager Mandy Veniot loads glassware into a new display case Friday in the Wellness Connection of Maine medical marijuana dispensary. Beginning Saturday, the store will transition to selling adult-use recreational marijuana products. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

With COVID-19 travel and quarantine restrictions being loosened this year, the flow of tourists and their money is expected to lift the state’s economy. Langston noted that under normal circumstances, Maine can draw up to 40 million visitors annually.

Among those visitors have been people who were hoping to buy medical marijuana products from Wellness Connection but couldn’t because they were not state residents. Now, he said, Wellness Connection locations are getting calls from people planning visits that will take advantage of the adult-use market.

Wellness Connection of Maine has been part of Gardiner’s business landscape since opening its doors in December 2014  in Gardiner’s historic train station, after moving from Hallowell.

Just two years later, voters endorsed legalizing marijuana by a narrow margin. As the state of Maine worked to create the regulatory structure under which the adult-use market would work, cities and towns have been grappling with whether to allow cultivation, manufacturing or sales in their communities.

Gardiner was among the communities that did, putting in place its own land-use regulations and system of permits before the planned launch of the market.

Last summer, after a number of operations applied for marijuana business licenses in Gardiner, some residents expressed alarm at the number of retail outlets that were appearing in the city’s historic downtown, even with the requirement that they be located no closer than 200 feet from one another.

That led to a moratorium on new applications for both medical and adult-use establishments being considered while the Ordinance Review Committee and the Planning Board considered whether to further limit the number of retail cannabis outlets allowed.

On May 11, the Gardiner Planning Board is expected to conduct a public hearing on the more restrictive regulations that have been developed by the Ordinance Review Committee for consideration. Among the proposed changes is increasing the separation distance between cannabis establishments to 500 feet and limiting where retail stores could be located.

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