PORTLAND – Wendy Chapkis was a graduate sociology student in northern California in the 1980s when she witnessed the emergence of a new movement: terminally ill people growing marijuana for medicine.

So, naturally, she started taking notes.

Now Chapkis is an author and sociology professor at the University of Southern Maine, watching with more than passing interest as California-style medical marijuana dispensaries move east to this state.

“The whole direction Maine is going in is very disappointing to me,” Chapkis said during a recent interview in her Portland office.

Chapkis is co-author of “Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine.” She finished her work on the book while at USM, but it draws on her longtime connection to the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, Calif.

The group is one of California’s original medical marijuana collectives, in which patients with serious illnesses cultivate the plants in a community garden and share the medicine at virtually no cost.

Although commercial storefront dispensaries have evolved into the standard way to get the drug to patients in California, the nonprofit collective was the original basis of California’s medical marijuana law.

“That’s the gold standard. But, of course, that’s not what people have done,” Chapkis said. “Clearly, some people have made a huge amount of money.”

Maine has set up a system of dispensaries that will grow marijuana on a commercial scale and sell it at nearly the same price as the black market.

Like some medical marijuana advocates in Maine, Chapkis believes the Maine law is more focused on preventing abuses than on getting affordable medicine to sick people.

“This is hugely centralized. It also takes it completely out of the hands of patients,” she said. “I think what’s driving it is a concern about diversion and recreational use rather than what’s best for patients.”

Despite those disappointments, Maine’s new dispensaries will provide another option for patients to get medical marijuana, Chapkis said.

“People who can afford what the market will bear should be able to go to a clean, well-lit place,” she said. “I’m glad that Maine law still allows for patients to grow their own or to have caretakers do it for them.”

Dispensaries also will help bring the medical marijuana movement, and the patients who rely on the drug, out of the shadows, Chapkis said. “What all of this is doing is starting to crack the closet door.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com