GARDINER – A young veteran has organized a cooperative of medical marijuana growers and patients.

Robert Rosso, 25, of Gardiner and other local growers have organized Kennebec Healing, a business that delivers hydroponic marijuana grown in three locations to 14 patients from Waterville to Windham.

“Some of my higher-class patients tell me, ‘You’re blazing the trails for medical marijuana,’” he said. “I’ve had people call me a pioneer.”

Since 1999, the state has allowed the prescribing and limited possession of medical marijuana for certain conditions. But it was not until a November 2009 referendum that the state created a formal method of legal distribution that has put Rosso and others like him into a new class of “potrepreneurs.”

Maine patients can apply for a medical marijuana identification card issued by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services that allows them to possess 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana if obtained from one of three sources: 13 state-licensed dispensaries, many of which have yet to open; one’s own garden; or a state-registered “caregiver.”

Dispensaries are allowed to sell each patient 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 15-day period. Someone growing his or her own can have up to 2.5 ounces and six plants — only three of which may be flowering.

‘NOT A GET-RICH-QUICK SCHEME’

Rosso, his business partners and some of their family members are among the individually licensed caregivers. These people can legally provide marijuana to no more than five patients with proper documentation, and are allowed to produce only 2.5 ounces and six plants for each patient served.

The law does not prohibit a group of caregivers from banding together to share knowledge. But in doing so, they cannot exceed the amount of harvested marijuana allowed by law.

As such, nonprofits such as Compassionate Caregivers of Maine, which connects patients to a network of caregivers without selling marijuana on its own, are legal.

And so, on the surface, are groups such as Kennebec Healing, which go a step further — aiming to offer patients advice, networking and a wide array of marijuana varieties.

Rosso plans to start a website for the business soon, where patients registered with the state can shop online to see what types of medication are in stock.

It would be a closed network — the general public would not be allowed in.

John Thiele, program director in charge of the medical marijuana program’s day-to-day administration, said growers who combine knowledge — not resources — are within the letter of the law.

“The main thing is that they don’t join their grow or their harvest,” he said.

Rosso and his main business partner, who declined to be identified for this story, formed a co-op after both broke into individual caretaking.

An Army veteran honorably discharged after a major injury in July 2009, Rosso said he began growing marijuana for personal use in the summer of 2010 to manage pain.

“It has made my life a lot better,” he said. “A lot of people think these people are hippies and stoners. That’s not it at all.”

He said they help each other with technology in their harvest areas, but their crops are kept separately.

“I have mine in my location. I do mine. He has his,” Rosso said.

Rosso’s partner’s location is in a home in a residential neighborhood just outside Windham. He did not want the specific location revealed for fear of robbery.

In January 2011, Rosso quit his Postal Service job in Lewiston to focus on this business.

Before being contacted by a reporter, he said only family and his partner knew he was in the business.

He said he has not made a profit yet, but hopes to — once he has more equipment and a larger network of patients.

He said that growing marijuana for patients, which includes a 12-week period between seed and first harvest, has high startup costs and is “not a get-rich-quick scheme.”

“I have spent enough money on this to buy a brand-new car,” Rosso said. “To do it right — what I consider right — for five patients … you’re talking $25,000 to $30,000.”

According to Rosso, many patients the co-op serves are unable to leave home, so he must deliver the marijuana to them.

“There is no reason you should have to drive to me. You’re trusting me with your plants,” he said. “That would be sort of the street mentality that I’m against.”

FEDERAL ABOUT-FACE SEEN

Rosso demonstrated his partner’s operation in the Windham area recently.

It involves a cloning process in which a segment of a mature plant is cut off, placed into a growing medium, then replanted, eventually leading to an exact copy of the “mother” plant.

One upstairs bedroom is used for harvesting the clones. Another bedroom is used for “vegging” the young plants — basically the growing stage between sprouting and flowering.

Once plants flower, they are moved to the basement, where a “flowering room” utilizes state-of-the-art growing technology including LED lights, a reverse osmosis watering system, air filtration and climate and carbon dioxide controls.

The scent of marijuana is not present in the room. From the outside, the house — though not used as a home and purchased specifically for marijuana growing, according to Rosso — seems like any other in the area.

The group’s formation comes at a time of great uncertainty for those cultivating, procuring and monitoring medical marijuana — in Maine and the 14 other states and the District of Columbia that allow it.

In 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder directed federal prosecutors not to pursue cases against medical marijuana patients in states where voters approved it.

But in recent weeks, the federal government has apparently done an about-face. Federal prosecutors have sent letters warning officials in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington state to back away from plans to liberalize medical marijuana laws.

In Washington, Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, cited those letters when she recently vetoed a medical marijuana bill she previously supported.

So while marijuana is considered a harmful and illegal drug by the federal government, states’ acceptance of it as a new agricultural industry — whose national earnings have recently been projected at $1.7 billion in 2011 by an independent financial analysis firm — has been thrown into jeopardy.

“You’re counting on the grace of God and the federal government to leave you alone,” said Gregory Braun, an Otisfield-based criminal defense and business attorney who advised Rosso. “That’s a lot of faith to place in a government.”

STATE LAW SOWS CONFUSION

Meanwhile, in the Legislature, Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, has sponsored L.D. 1296, “An Act to Amend the Maine Medical Use of Marijuana Act To Protect Patient Privacy.”

The bill would loosen some restrictions on medical marijuana in Maine — making patient registration optional, preventing municipalities from putting unreasonable burdens on caregivers and expanding the list of qualifying conditions.

But the bill also would provide for a ban on collectives sharing resources — either money or marijuana.

The bill received an “ought to pass” vote in committee Tuesday.

Sanderson said other states with medical marijuana laws have had problems with licensed people illegally combining their efforts, though she admitted she had not heard of any such instance in Maine.

Sanderson said she hopes the proposed bill would not prohibit companies such as Kennebec Healing from operating, as long as patients’ grows are kept to separate caregivers.

“That was one of the prohibitions that Maine doesn’t have,” Sanderson said. “It doesn’t hurt to be proactive.”

Darrell Crandall, division commander for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, said he has seen no related impact on law enforcement in Maine since the new federal letters.

“We make sure we are only targeting people in violation of (state) law,” he said. “Is it more time-consuming and difficult to do that now? Yes. But we are taking the time necessary to do so.”

Crandall said he has handled cases where people found possessing marijuana have claimed they were doing so under medical marijuana laws, but were caught lying upon investigation.

Rosso cited two instances in which he declined to work with a potential client because he or she wanted to receive more than the legal amount of marijuana.

“I deal with almost every patient at the beginning and screen them all,” he said. “I honestly don’t believe we have a patient that doesn’t need medication.”

But attorney Braun said unaddressed loopholes in Maine law can leave caretakers in legal jeopardy.

He gave an example of a caretaker who grows and harvests 2.5 ounces for himself and 2.5 ounces for a patient. This would put the caregiver technically over the legal amount until he sold the excess to patients.

“The moment they harvest it, they’re in violation of Maine law,” Braun said.

Rosso and Braun said many prospective medical marijuana patients express confusion about Maine laws.

“The state says what these people can do and then drops them off,” Rosso said. “You wouldn’t even believe it. I can guarantee I answer more phone calls and emails than the state does about this.”

Braun said he receives calls from people simply asking for an explanation of the laws.

“Most of what I do is answer calls and provide advice,” he said. “Many can’t figure it out and don’t know what it means.”

Thiele, the state program director, said his office has handled an increasing number of inquiries regarding the law.

“In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen an uptick in calls,” he said.

According to Braun, many doctors in Maine have shied away from prescribing marijuana to patients.

He only knows of three or four advertising they are prescribing it and said reasons why could be stigma or the relative youth of the law.

“There’s a fear in many doctors that patients may be drug seekers,” he said.

But patients from all walks of life, from business class to the very poor, are served by the co-op, Rosso said.

The rapport built with them is a distinguishing strength of his business, Rosso said. “Long-term relationships” are the goal, he said.

“One time, I delivered (marijuana) at 12:30 a.m. to a patient who couldn’t sleep because he was having seizures.

“He was all embarrassed, and I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I can go back to sleep,’” he said. “I served my country. I’m about helping people.”