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Visions of legal made-in-Maine pot brownies dance in their heads

A pile of brownies on a plater (Thinkstock)

PORTLAND, Maine (BDN) --At least in the minds of profit-hungry Maine entrepreneurs, the marijuana-spiked buns are already in the oven.

Maine voted in November to legalize recreational marijuana, but that law has not yet taken effect. And Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, who is President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, has strongly criticized the Obama administration for not strictly enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that have decriminalized the drug.

So, Mainers planning to cash in on pot’s legalization by infusing food with cannabis fret their dreams may go up in smoke. But even as they fret, they are pushing toward production of made-in-Maine pot goodies.

“It is a total blank canvas,” D. Michael Brooks, a Freeport tech executive exploring the world of cannabis-infused edibles, said. “We have a palette full of colors, and it’s my job to fill it.”

By the end of 2017, Brooks, a former medical marijuana caregiver in California, intends to launch a company called The Stockholm Group, named for Portland’s similarity to the Swedish capital. Both are historic, coastal, food-friendly cities.

He is looking for space in Greater Portland to manufacture and sell pot-powered nutrition sports bars and open a boutique or social club.

A former caterer, Brooks has studied the edibles market and sees an opportunity for a “luxury, upscale sophisticated product” handcrafted in Maine.

Meanwhile, two farmers in Jay are developing a marijuana-infused maple sugar that will be sold in low-dose packets. The owners of Tree Tap Extracts say they plan to market their invention to Portland coffee shops and specialty stores.

The size of Maine’s recreational cannabis market is expected to reach $60 million by 2018 and $210 million in 2020, according to The Arcview Group, a California-based investors network focused on the marijuana industry. In Colorado, where recreational pot has been legal since January 2014, sales of edible weed surged in the first quarter of the year. Nationally edibles and other infused products are on target to account for half the billion-dollar industry, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

But before the green rush that swept Colorado after weed became legal arrives here, numerous hurdles have to be cleared. Thirty days after the election results are certified, weed will become legal for those over 21 to possess and use in private. Adults will also be allowed to grow up to six plants for personal use.

But Mainers won’t be able to buy recreational marijuana legally until the Legislature writes the rules regulating its commercial sale. That process, which will no doubt include concerns about how to keep pot-infused foods out of the mouths of children, is expected to take at least nine months. Once the regs — which will activate statutory requirements that all marijuana products must be labeled with potency per serving — are in place, the state is expected to begin accepting applications for manufacturing licenses to convert cannabis into edible products.

Meanwhile, growing, selling and distributing marijuana is still a federal felony. In 2013, the Obama administration told state governments that Uncle Sam’s priority in terms of that particular drug is keeping it away from minors, targeting drug-trafficking cartels and preventing violence associated with it. That focus could shift radically if Sessions is confirmed.

Most of Maine’s ganjapreneurs say they are proceeding cautiously.

“It is super sensitive. We are all very nervous. It’s still federally illegal. The federal government could come in at any point and shut us down,” a Greater Portland bartender, who is a caregiver and medical marijuana confectioner, said. She asked to remain anonymous because she doesn’t want attention until the status of selling marijuana-infused products in Maine next year becomes clearer. “If Hillary was elected, I would be showing you things we are working on. But because of Trump and his appointees, I’m shaking in my boots.”

The 39-year-old makes artisanal dark-chocolate cannabis bars and wants to sell them more widely. She thinks the edibles market could rival the state’s booming craft beer scene.

“I’m going all in,” she said. “But if something goes wrong, I’ll lose everything.”

Portland attorney Ted Kelleher, who specializes in regulated substances at Drummond Woodsum, is working with several clients interested in the marijuana industry, from marijuana-infused edibles to cultivation, retail sales and testing labs.

“A lot of folks are turning their attention to this marketplace. If people felt they had to stop now, they’ll lose ground,” Kelleher said. He added that he’s hopeful the incoming president won’t destroy the nation’s growing market for legal marijuana.

“Trump is pro business and pro jobs,” Kelleher said. “This is a job and tax revenue creator for states that are eager for both.”

Brooks, who envisions pre- and post-workout pot-infused bars, agrees. “[Vice President-elect] Mike Pence is a scary person and so is Jeff Sessions. I get it. What am I supposed to do, let fear rule my life? Maine says it’s OK, so I’m doing it,” he said. “If something happens, so be it. I’m not going to let people in Washington dictate what I can freaking do.”

Likewise, Chad Crandall of Tree Tap Extracts is moving ahead with his pot-maple sugar. “Some things have come too far to go backward. There is a successful medical marijuana industry that has momentum,” said Crandall, who said the passage of the marijuana legalization referendum energized him. “The people’s will is enough. Every four years there are rising fears one way or another, and I try not to buy into it.”

Marc Shepard, co-founder of New England Cannabis Network, applauds such determination. “Anyone who thinks they will be able to wait until the industry is 100 percent safe and still be a part of it is sadly mistaken and will be left out,” he said.

“The bottom line is that prohibition is over in Maine, period,” he said. “Successful businesses in Colorado and other legal states aren’t worried. They are making plans to expand their brands … and take as big of a piece of our markets as they can.”

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