News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Central Maine’s Powers

Detroit's Green Mile

by | Nov 6, 2022

photos/Holly Zadra

Decades before legalization, before Purple Panty Droppers and Meatbreath, before Silver Haze and Mother of Cherries, there was Burnham RedEye, a legendary strain of cannabis grown in Burnham, Maine. High Times featured Burnham RedEye twice as its centerfold. David Letterman referenced it during a Late Show monologue that briefly put Central Maine on the then still-illicit national cannabis map. According to those in the know, Burnham RedEye held its own alongside Alaska’s Matanuska Thunder Fuck and Humboldt County California’s world-renown cultivars.

Today, recreational and medical cannabis retail shops, grows and manufacturing facilities are operating all over Maine, new ones are opening by the dozen, and there are almost 100 applications in the state’s licensing queue. Entrepreneurs and caregivers whose expert lexicon rivals any sommelier’s offer a dizzying panoply of flavors, uses, effects, mediums and sources. The endocannabinoid system is increasingly recognized as an important biological system worthy of every human’s attention. Beal University, with campuses in Bangor and Wilton, offers online associate and bachelor’s degree programs in cannabis and medicinal plant sciences.

But Burnham don’t care.

In 2018, Maine’s Legislature gave cities and towns the option to allow recreational (or “adult use”) establishments and to expand medical marijuana businesses within their borders, provided they adopt their own set of local ordinances to regulate them. The citizens of Burnham, who’d voted the previous year to prohibit rec sales, decided not to join the party. Instead, the neighboring town of Detroit — a community of 885 souls that sits just across the Waldo-Somerset County Line — promptly opened for cannabis business and manufacturing, joining the roughly 7 percent of Maine’s nearly 500 municipalities that opted in.

Pronounced DEE-troit, not Duh-TROIT, this quiet, sparsely populated town of roadside garages, bogs, heavy equipment sales and hay fields is dotted with what a descendent of “successful mean ol’ bastard” Hiram Temple, an early white settler here, describes as “the skeletons of old farms.” Here you can see the characteristic squalor of multi-generational poverty and substance abuse plaguing struggling rural communities nationwide. 

Simultaneously, and maybe because of that, Detroit is also a place of potential for people with a little capital and a lot of drive. Young, poor farmers bring fresh energy to the area. They grow organic vegetables and raise goats, they hay fields for cattle and horses and sell home-baked goods and homegrown flowers, including ganja.

Route 100 in Detroit is now a high-density cannabis highway. There are two medical marijuana dispensaries (Gram’s Five & Dime and Minerva Medicinals). There are both medical and recreational cultivation and manufacturing facilities (Highbrow and Room 5). And a delivery service (Cannabis on Demand) recently sold its retail store to Room 5, which plans to open a rec shop there. 

Back in the ’50s, this stretch of road hosted the Midway Drive-in, which had room for 300 cars. By the ’80s, the drive-in only showed X-rated films, and then the big screen went dark forever. A business selling pools and spas now occupies the site. In what was most recently an antique mall, the Spot Light Pavilion held roller-skating parties billed as being “well supervised for clean wholesome recreation” in a 1959 Bangor Daily News ad. That building is now a hydroponic marijuana cultivation facility. 

Some who grew up around here feel a wistful nostalgia for the old Route 100. To others, the cannabis boom represents a resurgence of the farming life that shaped and supported the town for nearly two centuries. 

Historian Doug Fernald, born and raised in Detroit, said his hometown “went from dairying to poultry to cannabis.” The industry provides well-paying jobs to eager employees and locally grown plant medicine to those in need. Jessica Temple Tardy, whose ancestors homesteaded in a part of town known as Templeville, imagines her forebears would be “tickled” to hear that agriculture is once again driving the economy here.

Detroit’s village center was established along the East Branch of the Sebasticook River, and is so named from the French term d’étroit, meaning “straights.” As white pine gives way to weeping willow and a small cluster of houses, the Detroit Village Cemetery and an evangelical Apostolic Fellowship (directly across from an uninhabitable 1866 Union church) indicate you’ve arrived in the heart of town. Detroit’s general store, The Maine Store, once beloved for its beef stew, sits in the middle of the village, on the corner of Main Street and River Road. It closed last June. The store, its parking lot, and a three-bedroom/one bath house (once a carriage-maker’s shop) is for sale for $250,000.

According to Fernald’s 125-page history of the town, Detroit got its start in 1792, when the Massachusetts Commonwealth commissioned surveyors to lot out townships from the “surplus eastern land lying between the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers.” Huge tracts were granted to Monmouth Academy, its trustees, and a few powerful white men at the expense of the Norridgewock and Penobscot who’d hunted and fished there for millennia. 

After several name changes and massive road-clearing projects, Detroit reached its settler-colonial zenith shortly before the Civil War. There were seven schools and dozens of family farms that produced wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, root crops, beans and peas. There were horses, sheep, cattle. And lumber. At the East Rips, where water falls 30 to 40 feet along a quarter-mile stretch of the Sebasticook, a dam powered several saw mills, a grist mill, a shingle mill and two tanneries. There were blacksmith shops, cooperages, carriage-makers, boarding houses, stores and creameries. 

Fernald’s insightful and entertaining history highlights the ways Detroit has wrestled with economic booms and busts since its inception. Because locals fought the railroad, fearing the “iron monster’s” noise, soot and sparks would “imperil grazing cattle,” the tracks were laid north and west of the heart of the village, denying the town a vital connection that could have tied together a more lasting commons. The major landowners – the Fryes, the Lords and the Shaws – eventually felled all the old-growth hemlock, cedar and pine, thus starving the mills and tanneries. Scott Paper and its subsidiaries later bought up big tracts of land, including Templeville, which was subsequently sold to the state for public recreation. The site of the dam at East Rips, where local company Newport Power once supplied electricity to both Detroit and Newport, was acquired by Central Maine Power, which subsequently resold the land because it doesn’t fall within the path of its transmission corridor.   

It’s hard to tell these days that Detroit’s village once bustled. Intersecting highways with no shoulders and a near total lack of walking paths discourage pedestrians and bicyclists. The last school, the ’50s-era Dorothy R. Cookson School, now houses the town hall and, down a lonely hallway, the town library, which is usually closed but provides lots of free self-help/diet books and Nora Roberts novels outside its door. As of this writing, there is still a post office.

But along Route 100’s Green Mile, the bustle is back. According to the fastidiously kept logbook of Detroit Code Enforcement Officer Brian Croft, it was Noah Rohen — described in Croft’s notes as a “low-key” medicinal marijuana grower and owner of Highbrow, LLC — who set the wheels in motion several years ago when he inquired about the potential to sell weed there. Room 5, another limited-liability company, got one of the first recreational-sales licenses issued by the state, further propelling Detroit along the cannabis road. 

The town’s selectmen believed new construction and the renovation of old buildings would grow Detroit’s property-tax base. So, together with Detroit residents who attended the town meetings, they drafted an ordinance to allow both medical and recreational cannabis facilities. Today, Maine’s Detroit is an unlikely mecca for indoor and outdoor flower, rosin, concentrates, RSO (Rick Simpson Oil), live resins, shatter, pre-rolls, distillates, edibles, lotions and tinctures.

When Detroit opted in, town officials assumed Maine’s Office of Cannabis Policy (OCP) would handle any regulatory or enforcement matters. But, in fact, that was up to the town. Local civil servants received little guidance from the state agency, so they drafted their own ordinance and fee structure for marijuana sellers, growers and manufacturers, while also adapting all the mandatory life-safety and fire codes for such operations, plus new land-use and sanitation ordinances, plumbing and wastewater-disposal codes, and rules for driveway entrances, signs and lighting. 

The result of all that work has since been widely shared with other municipalities in Maine that opted in. But for Croft, the part-time code enforcement officer, the scale of the task was immense. He said he was “way over budget just dealing with marijuana.” And because Detroit opted in early, the town isn’t eligible for the OCP’s recently established reimbursement fund, which provides municipalities with up to $20,000 to cover the cost of crafting rules for pot businesses. Kate Dufour, Director of Advocacy and Communications for the Maine Municipal Association, called the fund “cold comfort” for early adopters like Detroit.

Still, there’s reason beyond filling the tax coffers — a boon that’s yet to materialize — for Detroit to welcome the cannabis trade. New small-scale, family-owned-and-operated businesses are revitalizing the town.  

Plant Overlord Ryan Allred at Gram’s Five & Dime.

Tammy Smith owns Gram’s Five & Dime. She grew up in Ellsworth and employs her sisters, daughters, and her son’s best friend, Ryan Allred, who deems himself the “Plant Overlord” of their bright and visually stimulating retail space. 

Smith sat down with me this fall in a warm, sunlit waiting room and spontaneously answered questions about the shop, about how cannabis alleviated her aunt’s extreme agoraphobia, about their chemical-free grow (which she let me tour), the beneficial insects she marshals to kill pests, and her experiences in Detroit. She said town officials and neighbors have been very welcoming and business-friendly. Her main concern is educating the public about cannabis, so its use is more normalized and people become more comfortable discussing it openly. 

Just down the road is Minerva Medicinals. Owner Kirk Small Jr. hails from a Bangor-area family of Irish and Aroostook Band of Mi’qmak. Like Smith, he employs family members: his son, Kirk Small III, and his wife, Amber Crocker, who manages their craft cannabis store. Small is a bit territorial about his business, perhaps because it was indirectly the target of a town petition intended to stop additional pot shops from opening. But he’s also proud of the quality of specialty flower he grows, procures and sells. The drone cones Crocker rolls by the hundreds every day have twice won awards at the New England Cannabis Convention. Small claims all the cannabis workers along the Green Mile visit his shop for his unparalleled flower.

Limitless Farms, a dispensary on the Troy Road, is also a family affair. Dustin Watrous, a slightly evasive thirty-something, manages the place. He works with his sister, Loryn Watrous, who’s married to Limitless owner Ralph McLaughlin, of Hartland. McLaughlin wasn’t at the store when I visited and, according to Loryn, he’s shyer than Dusty, so she deferred to her brother, who expertly answered my questions while pacing back and forth. 

The siblings grew up in Detroit. They went to high school with many of their customers, some of whom now live in neighboring Unity and Newport. Dusty downplayed the legacy of Burnham RedEye, saying the strain was basically one step up from Mexican cartel weed. In any case, he added, Burnham RedEye can’t compete with what today’s local growers are harvesting. 

•••

The small towns of Central Maine have taken very different approaches to legal cannabis. As noted, Detroit was among the first 18 municipalities to opt in, allowing for small-scale outdoor cultivation and larger indoor facilities — except Tier 4-level (large-scale) marijuana cultivation — and it’s realized tremendous growth. 

In Thorndike, Massachusetts-based Nova Farms, whose website boasts that the company has “New England’s largest outdoor cannabis grow,” is far bigger and better capitalized than most of the mom-and-pop operations in Detroit. Nova bought 170 acres in Thorndike from farmers who’d worked that land for 70 years before moving into an adult-care facility. With its conditional Tier 4 outdoor grow license, Nova is allowed up to 20,000 square feet of planting. 

Then there’s Dexter, located 20 miles north of Detroit. Dexter limits cannabis business to two facilities and requires them to have sufficient acreage in front to shield them from the eyes of passersby. 

Jonathan Hanson at Puffer’s Place.

Puffer’s Place is an idyllic log cabin–style dispensary with wooded walking trails covering 10 acres. Owner Jonathan Hanson envisions offering cannabis-friendly lodging and a cabin reserved for patients fighting cancer, who’d stay there for free. The big-hearted, bearded guy’s pretty bright eyes teared up when he told me about his mom’s death last August, how quickly cancer killed her, and how he wonders if cannabis might have helped ease her suffering. Dexter’s other cannabis facility, Delta, is a manufacturer, and was difficult to find; calls weren’t returned and my e-mail bounced back.

Back in Burnham, the town that made Maine weed famous, folks just sit back, grow their own, and watch as the rules and regulations tangle and untangle the budding industry. Although retail marijuana sales are banned, individual caregivers can still do their thing. According to one long-time Burnham resident, who was cagey about being identified, the townspeople are “proud not to have opted in.” 

This approach spares small towns the stress and expense of crafting and enforcing cannabis rules. Burnham’s denizens can wait and watch to see whether, for example, medical marijuana testing will be mandated or voluntary, and how track-and-trace regulations will work in practice, and whether small-scale operations will or will not be protected by the new tracking regime. Doing nothing also keeps out-of-staters from “growing pot in our yards,” like Nova has done in Thorndike, the Burnhamite said.

Even in Detroit, the debate over pot sales is far from over. In August, the town initiated a moratorium on any new cannabis facilities, the result of the aforementioned citizen petition, which was signed by about 45 people — 10 percent of the Detroit townspeople who voted in the last gubernatorial election. They will revisit the moratorium during their annual meeting next March.

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