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North of Orono, a home medical pot operation thrives

Blueberry, a type of marijuana that grows with a blue hue and fruity smell, is one of the more noticeable plants in Burke’s grow rooms.
Michael Shepherd | The Maine Campus
Blueberry, a type of marijuana that grows with a blue hue and fruity smell, is one of the more noticeable plants in Burke’s grow rooms.
Jim Burke, 52, of Lagrange, showed part of his medical marijuana growing operation to The Maine Campus in a visit last week. Burke, a state-licensed “caregiver,” helps run Care by Cannabis, a limited liability company that serves 15 patients.
Michael Shepherd | The Maine Campus
Jim Burke, 52, of Lagrange, showed part of his medical marijuana growing operation to The Maine Campus in a visit last week. Burke, a state-licensed “caregiver,” helps run Care by Cannabis, a limited liability company that serves 15 patients.

LAGRANGE — In the middle of nowhere, the Burkes have a garage full of legal marijuana.

They don’t want you to know where they are. In a feeble effort hunting for the house last week, I called Jim Burke for directions.

“You just passed me twice,” he said.

He was right, but he had never seen my car. His security system, with indoor and outdoor cameras feeding into a television, showed him.

Out of a converted barn attached to a farmhouse about 30 minutes north of the University of Maine, Jim and wife, Susan, run Care by Cannabis, a limited liability company.

Care by Cannabis is a cooperative of growers. Jim and Susan Burke, along with a friend from Milo, are medical marijuana patients and “caregivers” allowed by state law to provide up to 5 ounces of marijuana a month to a maximum of five patients with a doctor’s recommendation. Currently, 14 patients, including the 3 caregivers, grow their plants under the Burkes’ roof.

Jim, 52, has a lot to look out for. He said he has invested $60,000 in the growing operation thus far.

Nobody has tried robbing him yet, but Jim has a plan for anyone who may.

“In the daytime, I’m calling the cops,” he said. “If it’s nighttime, I’m greeting them with a gun.”

“Everyone around here knows he’s got 20 guns upstairs,” Susan, 40, piped up.

“I’m known as a sportsman,” he said.

But even with guns, the marijuana production business has its struggles­­ — the Burkes can attest to that.

‘You’ll do anything’

From its roots in a single room, the growing operation now comprises eight, with average electric bills for the property running $2,000 per month.

Two of the rooms are chiefly used to hold flowering plants while four others serve a variety of purposes from drying harvested stock to vegetative growth — those plants yet to bloom. One room, a secondary kitchen, is used for preparation and genetics work to create a patient’s perfect plant. A space in the basement holds male plants, sequestering their pollen in an area separated from the females in an effort to control genetic lines and avoid a seedy finished product.

By Christmas, Care by Cannabis will be maxed out with its number of permissible patients. The three caregivers will have 15 patients and won’t be legally able to take any more. Patients from Piscataquis to Kennebec counties are on the roster, Jim said, and there’s a waiting list for spots.

And in two years, he said, all business expenses will be paid off and profit will roll in.

Jim had been working heavy construction for Brewer-based Cianbro for 18 years when doctors discovered he had small-cell lung and bone cancer in 2009. While working there, he was subject to periodic drug testing, a stipulation that excluded marijuana as a medicine.

“When I came down with cancer, I had people dropping off free pot,” he said. “Trust me. When you find out you have cancer, you’ll go online and you’ll do anything to stay alive — legal or not.”

Jim left his job with Cianbro and underwent chemotherapy and radiation to try to beat the tumor, all while using marijuana. He said he went through the treatments with 12 others.

“I was the only one walking at the end of it, I believe. They were so worn out from it,” he said.

In contrast to his weakened counterparts, Jim said he gained 50 pounds going through chemotherapy, which he called “incredible.” He now is in remission and uses marijuana chiefly for pain management. Still, he can’t stand for more than four hours a day without severe pain.

“Not only did it help with pain and appetite, I believe it shrunk the tumor,” he said.

Contrary to cases of systemic abuse cited by those opposed to the medical marijuana movement, Jim said there isn’t a patient Care by Cannabis has who doesn’t need help. Some have cancer. Some have Crohn’s disease. Jim said he even has a strain of pot that works well for epileptics.

“Most every one of them is using a cane, walker or wheelchair,” he said. “They’re crippled — no doubt whatsoever.”

The Burkes also aim to keep prices low, and Jim thinks his prices may be the lowest in the state.

Though prices are slated to increase by $25 soon, the Burkes’ average strain sells for approximately $150 an ounce, except for the purest forms of sativa — one of three species of cannabis, known for inducing energetic highs and stimulating appetite, that is rarely used for the chronic pain management most of his clients seek.

Jim didn’t mention a recently announced 5 percent tax of marijuana sold for medicinal purposes levied by the Maine Revenue Services, reported Nov. 3 by the Capitol News Service, as a reason for the increase.

According to Patrick Robinson, a board member of Compassionate Caregivers of Maine, a nonprofit group aiming to provide patients with qualified caregivers, the normal market price for caregivers is approximately $250 per ounce. Dispensaries are usually upward of $300 per ounce.

“Profit isn’t a bad word. Greed is,” Jim said. “I keep my prices low because it’s legal and I can.”

And with Jim, you get a free consultant. If patients don’t have enough money to afford his product, he’ll advise them on how to grow their own.

“There’s no charge for talking,” he said. “Talk, as they say, is cheap.”

Insurance woes

While Jim says he’s leading the pack in a back-to-the-land industry with the potential to create thousands of jobs in Maine, he’s also had scares.

According to state records, the company became an LLC in December 2010. Jim, the company’s treasurer and spokesman, said they opened for business in January. Susan serves as president.

Jim said when he phoned the insurer of his home, vehicles and boat about a business risk insurance quote on Care by Cannabis, they said they would get back to him and hung up.

“Fifteen minutes later, they called to say, ‘All your policies are cancelled,’” he said. “I got a mortgage, I have delivery vehicles, and I’ve been a paying customer.”

He provided The Maine Campus with a non-renewal letter on his homeowners insurance dated June 8 from The Concord Group Insurance Companies signed by Michael Nolin Jr., vice president for underwriting.

The letter cites “increased liability exposure” because of a marijuana business on premise, telling him the policy would lapse June 27.

When asked the company’s policy on insuring known medical marijuana businesses, Concord spokesman John Natale, via email, only cited to the company’s privacy policy. He didn’t respond to following inquiries.

The Burkes’ old policies were through Allen/Freeman/McDonnell Insurance Agency, a Brewer office that sells insurance through the Concord Group based in New Hampshire, where medical marijuana is illegal.

After learning of the cancellation, Jim said he sought out Orono-based State Farm Insurance agent Bobby Donnelly.

“Within one day’s time, he had me fully insured at a lower rate than I had with Concord,” Jim said. “Bob was good to his word.”

Reached Sunday, Donnelly referred questions to State Farm’s corporate office, confirming he insured the Burkes.

“We elect to insure businesses engaged in permissible practices. We continue to evaluate each risk on its own merit within the guidelines of local and state regulation,” State Farm spokesman Douglas Nadeau wrote in a statement. “Businesses that are appropriately licensed for the sale of medical marijuana may be eligible for a business risk policy under limited circumstances.”

According to Robinson, insurance doesn’t often come up among caregivers. He said Compassionate Caregivers of Maine is more focused on having health insurers pay for patients’ marijuana and organizing caregiving’s business model.

However, he said if he were put in Jim’s position, he would tell the insurance company he was simply a farmer — not a marijuana grower.

“My insurance company is out of Massachusetts, I think, and I wouldn’t tell them,” Robinson said. “The only possible way I would think about telling them is if it were a Maine insurance company.”

Returning to Maine’s roots?

Back in Lagrange, a town of just over 700, Jim reminisced about the time he grew almost all of his own food in a town farm. Only necessities like flour and coffee were purchased in town.

That was years ago. Then, he said, he was skinny, young and could work all day long.

Referencing Northeast Patients Group, the nonprofit owner of four of Maine’s dispensary licenses, which spawned from the leadership of a California dispensary organization, Jim argued for Maine to take a hyper-local look at the business.

“Maybe they should have given the [licenses] to potato farmers,” he said.

Robinson, the caregiver advocate, concurred with Jim’s assessment.

“If the state’s going to give four of our dispensaries to California, we’re going to be pushing for micro business,” he said.

Jim says that’s what Care by Cannabis is — from the six to eight bottles of carbon dioxide he buys wholesale per month to his electric bill to recommending The Captain’s Joint, an Old Town store, for equipment to smoke with.

“Every dime I spend, I spend local,” he said. “I’m a real stickler for that.”

In an era when so many of life’s staples are bought at big-box stores, Jim sees medical marijuana as an economic opportunity for rural Maine.

“There’s not many opportunities for growth in this state,” he said. “We’re getting a population growth because of this industry.”

As the list of marijuana patients grows, Jim believes the medical marijuana industry has the potential to change how Mainers think about agriculture in general.

“It’ll open the eyes a lot to the farmer’s market,” he said. “Hannaford’s — look out.”