I recently traveled from New England to Hawaii to attend the 3rd annual Maui Medical Cannabis Symposium. I obviously enjoyed leaving our winter in Maine for a trip under the sun in Maui. But it was also very inspiring to spend time and exchange perspectives with several cannabis trailblazers including Dr. Andrew Weil, an internationally recognized expert on integrative medicine; Michael Backes, author of Cannabis Pharmacy: The Practical Guide to Medical Marijuana and Dr. Greg Yim, whose dedication for his pediatric patients suffering from epilepsy led to the creation of the medical program in Maui.
This was also an opportunity to discuss the latest developments in the Hawaii medical cannabis industry with my friends at Maui Grown Therapy (Maui-based operators). Our discussions quickly revealed that despite being separated by a continent, major time zone shifts and radically different climates, Maine and Hawaii have much in common. In fact, as I see it, Maine could be a good indicator of what lies ahead for the Hawaii program.
Let’s explore further Maine and Hawaii similarities and disparities.
First, cannabis is a legacy crop in both states. Each have iconic native varietals: Mother of Berry in Maine and Maui Waui in Hawaii. And in both states, cannabis offers an opportunity for individuals to generate a steady income in a new industry where older industries have been dying out. Maine has a dwindling paper industry; Hawaii has a shrinking sugar cane industry and both are providing fewer and fewer jobs.
Tourism is a leading industry for each state – 37 million tourists for Maine in 2018, 10 million for Hawaii, something that both states can capitalize on. And tourists in Hawaii can now buy medical cannabis legally. Individual cannabis entrepreneurs and caregivers can quickly latch on to new opportunities, much the way the gig economy has flourished. They can find a niche and grow.
Both medical cannabis programs offer a limited number of licenses for vertically integrated operators. But, Maine is a step ahead when it comes to accessing a medical marijuana license. Since December 2018, Maine no longer restricts the conditions or symptoms granting access to the program but Maui still does. Looking down the road, that could change.
Banking is always a challenge in the cannabis industry. Maine is starting to see progress; a few progressive banks are starting to cater to cannabis clients. In Maui, operators must resort to out-of-state banking solutions.
Both states have faced differences in their medical programs when it comes to track-and-trace systems and quality control. With their medical program starting in 2016, Hawaii demonstrated foresight on two key components of their medical program; implementation of a state track-and-trace system and laboratory tested quality control. But both have proven to be very difficult.
BioTrack took several years for full deployment in Hawaii. Unfortunately, their implementation is proving challenging as the operators do not like their POS tracking system. And lab testing is extremely difficult. The number of laboratories is too limited. Also samples cannot be shipped from one island to the other for testing because the water between islands is considered federally governed and/or international waters.
Meanwhile, Maine, which launched its medical program in 2009, is finally catching up and considering implementing both components, state track-and-trace and mandatory testing, with all indicators pointing to full implementation towards late 2019.
The limited pool of potential patients, the historical legacy competition and the complexity of operating such cannabis businesses make it very challenging for fully compliant operators to break even economically, and for the States to collect the full potential of tax revenues that the cannabis industry could bring.
The future of both Maine and Hawaii cannabis industries hinges on similar opportunities that would allow for sustained growth and expansion. There are opportunities to harness the impact of out-of-state visitors by improving the medical access program and implementing adult-use. Maine is poised to do just that as the state is ready to (finally) launch its adult use market in late 2019- early 2020. Hawaii voted down the recreational option in 2018.
But if these Maine vs. Hawaii indicators hold true, you might see that change in the future.