ELIOT, Maine — As recreational marijuana sales open across the state on Friday, Sweet Dirt is stealthily laying the groundwork to develop a stronghold on Maine’s budding new industry.
Headquartered on Route 236, Sweet Dirt will not join the recreational shops opening Friday, but skip the kinks of the initial roll-out. Plans are in the works for future Sweet Dirt adult-use recreational marijuana stores in Waterville, Portland and Eliot. In the meantime, the company is preparing to move into a new, state-of-the-art 32,800-square-foot cannabis greenhouse – thought to be the largest of its type in the state – and an associated medicinal storefront at its 495 Harold L. Dow Highway address.
Certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association as a clean cannabis caregiver, Sweet Dirt is one of just a few companies in the state with multiple conditional licenses – spanning manufacturing, retail and cultivation.
The company is estimating a 600% growth in the coming years, from 30 to 35 employees to more than 125. CEO Jim Henry predicts 1% of Eliot’s population someday will be employed by Sweet Dirt.
Last November, Eliot voters approved retail adult marijuana sales in town by a wide margin.
“We’re looking to be an economic engine for Eliot and the state,” Henry said.
The global legal marijuana market is expected to reach $146.4 billion by end of 2025. In the U.S., estimates hover around $80 billion.
Sweet Dirt was founded a little over five years ago by husband and wife Hughes and Kristin Pope. Today, it’s a growing, fully vertically integrated cannabis company.
In June 2019, the business experienced a two-alarm fire that destroyed its greenhouse and brought fire departments from around the Seacoast. Despite the fire and the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic, “we really haven’t taken our foot off the gas,” said Henry.
“I am a firm believer that cannabis will play a large and strategic role in helping the economy bounce back,” he said.
The pandemic also has been a time for unexpected growth. Both the nation and Maine saw increased interest in medicinal marijuana as a result. According to the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy, medical marijuana certifications increased by 30% from January to April 2020.
Sweet Dirt will continue to ride the medicinal wave as select recreational storefronts open around the state. The closest location to southern Maine is in South Portland. The Office of Marijuana Policy began issuing licenses for recreational cannabis businesses last month, after the market’s anticipated June opening was delayed by the virus.
Henry cited “deep connections” with their medicinal customers, to whom they’ve been selling from a trailer, awaiting approval from the town of Eliot to open the doors of their new storefront, which is decorated in a wallpaper featuring Koala bears holding bongs and cheeseburgers.
Jessica Oliver, senior vice president of Sweet Dirt’s cannabis operations, said the business is currently seeing 50 to 60 medicinal customers per day, and she predicts that number to rise to 350 when they open for recreational sales.
According to the Office of Marijuana Policy, in 2019, York County had the second-highest number of medical marijuana patient certificates in the state at 8,903. Across the state that year, the total number of certificates was more than 65,000. Those numbers have only risen since the onset of COVID-19, considering in Maine, doctors can recommend medical marijuana to patients for any medical reason.
Caregivers and dispensaries were deemed essential by Gov. Janet Mills in March, exempt from COVID-19-related closures.
Hughes Pope said the new greenhouse – with a light carbon footprint – is expected to contain approximately 10,000 plants. It presents an opportunity to “grow things people aren’t used to seeing.”
He cited South African strains, a plant called Blue Dream Stardawg, and a Transkei strain, pure Sativa from Seeds of Africa, for example.
Henry called the greenhouse a “beautiful edifice ready to produce economic benefits for the state and the region.”
“This year-and-a half has not been without its challenges,” Henry said. “”But we’ve come out stronger in the end.”