Erik Gundersen, Maine’s former chief cannabis regulator. Credit: Submitted

In November 2016 Maine voters passed a ballot initiative legalizing adult use cannabis. At the time, Erik Gundersen was a policy advisor for then-State House Speaker Sara Gideon. As her advisor, Gundersen said he took the initiative to help transform the passed ballot measure into legislated law. Although Maine’s Democratically-lead legislature was in favor of legal weed, it was opposed by Governor Paul LePage, a Republican who took office in 2011 on the conservative Tea Party wave.

This meant early attempts to write the law allowing a legal cannabis market faced vetoes from the governor’s office. As a legislative policy advisor, Gundersen was in the thick of these legal efforts.

“It was an incredible experience to go through a year and a half of work, a couple of governor’s vetoes, and rewrites,” said Gundersen. “At the end of the day we got it done, we got it passed.”

After helping lead the effort to craft the state’s legislation to enact the laws that allowed an adult use market, Gundersen was selected by the governor to be the first executive director of the newly-formed Office of Marijuana Policy. Gundersen officially took office in February, 2019. Almost four years later, he announced his departure from state government on Oct. 7, 2022.

Gundersen took the helm of Maine’s cannabis regulation at a time when it was lagging behind Massachusetts – which also legalized adult use through a 2016 ballot question. Since then, Maine has emerged as a top weed producer in New England. 

Following a short family vacation, Gundersen agreed to chat with Grown In on October 26, about his time in office and what may be ahead for legal cannabis in Maine.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Grown In: Do you feel like you were coming into the job at a disadvantage, considering the delay in implementation?

Gundersen: When we came in, we were basically starting from scratch. We had the statute and this long list of directives that needed to be accomplished. It was literally just me sitting in the basement of the state office building, trying to figure out what I needed to do next. We had to put the rules together that now serves as the framework for our adult use program. After they had gone through our administrative procedures process, the rules needed to be signed off by the legislature, but in Maine we have a part-time legislature and they go home in July. 

So we came in, in February, and we were under a significant time crunch. That was a crazy whirlwind time for me and a very small staff that I had brought on to help with that process. We got it through by the skin of our teeth really. Those were some of the earlier, more crazy times, but I certainly felt good and proud of everything we accomplished in those early days.

Grown In: What were some of the toughest lessons you had to learn when getting everything up and running?

Gundersen: Looking back just the sheer amount of competing interests within the cannabis space can make it difficult to operate and be flexible. There’s the need for exhaustive stakeholder engagement. It really doesn’t even matter what you’re working on, there needs to be some type of aspect of stakeholder engagement to make sure that it’s gonna be successful. There’s no shortage of competing interests. Making sure that you’re having that dialogue, you’re hearing those different voices, and you’re working with those other groups is so important for long term success.

Grown In: It seemed to me like the OCP did a good job of making its work transparent, or at least accessible to the general public.

Gundersen: That goes into the culture that we tried to establish early on. It was important to us and we thought it was only going to bring good things considering cannabis is under such a microscope nationally. Stakeholder engagement is important.

Grown In: Speaking of working groups, I think we might as well just dive into medical regulation. As a casual observer it seemed that there was a lot of push back from the primary caregiver community when your office attempted to update rules for medical cannabis this year and last.

Gundersen: That was certainly a challenging time for us. Since we were established in 2019, we knew the difference between consumers and patients, but we wanted there to be space for both of those programs to operate for their populations. When we went to go update the rules, that came secondary to launching the adult use industry, and once we were successful in that we circled back to update the medical regulations so that the two industries could coexist.

Grown In: For about nine years before assuming the role as head of the OCP, you moonlighted as a stand up comic. To what extent do you feel like your time as a stand up comic helped prepare you to be in these meetings, in a performative sense?

Gundersen: That’s not a crazy question at all. No matter what state you’re in these cannabis regulators and their agencies and their programs are under a microscope. It was incredibly helpful whether it was leading a community forum or being in front of the legislature advocating for a bill at the department or doing a television interview, It certainly helped.

Grown In: How did you think about the state’s illicit market as a regulator?

Gundersen: We’re capturing the in-state illicit market by leaps and bounds, faster than any other state that’s come before us. We have data that suggests that’s true. But we also know that we have a surplus. 

So where is it going? It’s being exported out of state. I certainly think an inventory tracking system could help with that, but it’s not a silver bullet, there are other policies that you can put in place to help address some of those issues. It’s on every state’s radar and they continue to work to address it the best they can.

Grown In: Following this year’s legislative season, which included legalizing delivery for adult use, not to mention the department’s ongoing listening series across the state and the current METRC work group working on new recommendations for seed to sale tracking, there is a lot of work to be done in your absence.

Gundersen: There’s always a lot happening in cannabis regulatory agencies, no matter what state you’re in. There’s no good time to ever leave, but I wanted to make sure that we got a lot of those stakeholder engagement initiatives up and running. We got a lot of the rules out together and finalized the system’s build-out for those legislative directives from last session.

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Zack cut his journalistic teeth covering high school sports in the south before spending a decade covering local government, politics and the courts in the Boston, Massachusetts area. He's previously written...