The Cornerstone Barbershop on Exchange Street in Bangor is an old-school barbershop. A classic red, white, and blue barber’s pole turns out front while electric trimmers buzz inside. The waiting area is filled with men whose hair is imperceptibly–but evidently–too long. It’s a place that, as life zooms by on the street, time stands still, even as hair falls to the floor. The atmosphere is probably not that different than when owner Gene Spearrin first started cutting hair 50 years ago.
Growing up in Maine in the 1960s, Gene says his options were “mill work or work in the woods,” but he “didn’t like those ideas.” So, after seeing that a local barber was “doing pretty good,” he enrolled in barber college and began a career that would last 50 years. In that time, Gene ran several barbershops throughout the state before settling in Bangor in 1980 with one or two shops.
Now the time has finally come for Gene to retire. But like so many other hard working people who can retire but can’t stop, he found something else to keep him busy. “I need something to do for the next 50 years,” he explains.
That something is Gene’s new store: Grass Roots of Maine. Located at the corner of State and Harlow Streets, Grass Roots is a store focused on the medical benefits of hemp. Basically, he’s going from one head shop to another.
Although you will find glass pipes, bongs, oneies, and vaporizers, Gene hopes for his store to be a little different than some of the other head shops out there. He has a growing selection of hemp and cannabinoid oils and products that can be used to treat a long list of ailments. These do not contain THC, the psychoactive element of marijuana that produces a high. Instead they contain cannabinoids which have been found to help children control seizures and people with Crohn’s disease reduce their symptoms. Hemp hearts, which taste like nuts, are available by the pound.
Gene is passionate about the benefits of these products, particularly because he feels they are almost as effective as they are misunderstood. He explains that many doctors who prescribe marijuana don’t know enough about the different strains and their benefits to effectively inform their patients. Caregivers also don’t really have a strong incentive to make sure patients are educated and making informed choices. It falls to patients to educate themselves. Given this new and rapidly changing landscape, Grass Roots of Maine is a place where anyone can go to learn more about the medical benefits of hemp and marijuana.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
As more and more people are turning to the cannabis plant for its medical properties, weed is slowly losing the stigma associated with it from the Reefer Madness days. Back when Gene had only been cutting hair for about a year, Bob Dylan released his counterculture classic “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” in which he suggested that “everybody must get stoned.” Some 50 years later, as Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska have legalized recreational weed, it would seem people are taking Dylan’s advice. What was once counterculture is quickly becoming mainstream culture.
One watershed moment came when President Obama was shaking hands in Denver last year and someone in the crowd asked, “want a hit of this?” Suffice to say, if somebody had pulled that stunt with Richard Nixon they would just now be getting out of prison. Obama, a former Choom Gang member, politely declined. As Dylan might say, things have changed.
Although Grass Roots of Maine caters primarily to medical users, one can’t help but wonder if that could change given the possibility of legalized recreational marijuana in Maine in the near future. There are several paths to legal weed in Maine, and given its gradual acceptance it seems like it might actually happen. If that’s the case, places like Grass Roots could be something akin to a speakeasy after prohibition, that is to say, very popular.
For now, Gene is operating two separate businesses in one location. Grass Roots, offering legal non-psychoactive hemp products is located at 32 State Street. Mainely Medical Marijuana, where Gene is a licensed caregiver is located at 6 Harlow Street. Both doors lead into one space (which naturally was a drug store at one time), but the two areas are separated by a chain. Gene explains, “Someday, we hope one door will be sufficient.”
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. The legal gray areas, changing laws, medicinal uses, and outlaw status of a plant have me bewildered and I haven’t even smoked anything. But if the legal area of marijuana is gray, the money–like the bud–is green.
It’s estimated that the first New England state to legalize recreational marijuana stands to benefit tens of millions of dollars from taxes and tourism. That’s not to mention the small businesses like Grass Roots that would thrive, as well as the jobs created by the growth of an entirely new industry. As rural Maine struggles amidst closing mills and vanishing job prospects, lawmakers’ or voters’ decisions may boil down to economics.
Meanwhile, Gene’s move from barbershop to head shop would seem to be representative of marijuana’s broad cultural shift. I asked him if he expected to see any of his barbershop customers at his new store. He said about half are very supportive and the other half “wonder what the heck I’m doing.”
When the smoke clears, we all may be wondering why weed was illegal in the first place.
GRASS ROOTS OF MAINE IS ON FACEBOOK HERE, AND OPEN FOR BUSINESS AT 32 STATE STREET IN DOWNTOWN BANGOR. FOR MEDICAL-MARIJUANA CARDHOLDERS, MAINELY MEDICAL MARIJUANA IS NEXT DOOR AT 6 HARLOW STREET. FOR A GREAT HAIRCUT, THE CORNERSTONE BARBERSHOP IS UP THE ROAD AT 210 EXCHANGE STREET AND CAN BE REACHED AT 942-6537.