Maine is poised to be a leader in the recreational marijuana business because of its success with medical cannabis, the head of the state’s largest medical marijuana dispensary group said Wednesday.

Patricia Rosi, CEO of the Wellness Connection of Maine, said the state could benefit financially by allowing recreational marijuana sales and joining the country’s fastest growing industry, with an economic impact of $11.1 billion this year.

Rosi spoke about medical cannabis and marijuana legalization during the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Eggs & Issues event.

Two groups – Legalize Maine and the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol – are collecting signatures to get separate legalization referendum questions on the November 2016 ballot. Both groups have developed plans that would allow adults 21 and older to buy and use recreational marijuana.

Maine is one of 34 states that allow some form of medical cannabis. Maine legalized medical uses in 1999, and the state’s first dispensaries opened in 2011. Last year, Maine’s program was voted the best medical marijuana program in the country by Americans for Safe Access, a national group that advocates for legal access to medical cannabis.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., have passed state laws legalizing recreational pot.

A poll in the spring of 2015 by Critical Insights, a Portland market research firm, found that 65 percent of Mainers support legalizing marijuana. If it is legalized, 79 percent of people believe it should only be sold in licensed establishments, according to the poll.

FASTEST GROWING U.S. INDUSTRY

Rosi said cannabis is the fastest growing United States industry, with an estimated economic impact of up to $11.1 billion. The industry is expected to be bigger than organic food by 2016 with an estimated $36 billion economic impact. For every $1 of legally sold cannabis, $2.60 of economic value enters the American economy, she said.

If Maine voters decide to legalize recreational use of marijuana, the state could take in $26.7 million in revenue from taxes and fees per year, Rosi said.

“If we do this right, this will mean sustained growth for the economy of Maine,” Rosi said. “We have to get ahead of it and be proactive. Everyone is trying to wrap their arms around it.”

Quincy Hentzel, president of the chamber of commerce, said the chamber wanted to have a discussion about the marijuana industry, which she characterized as a “hot-button issue” for many people. The issue is especially relevant given the prospect of a 2016 legalization vote, she said.

“Regardless of where people land on the issue of medical cannabis, it’s helpful for our membership to have a discussion about it,” she said. “For many people, this is probably the first conversation like this they’ve had.”

Medical marijuana in Maine is provided both by individual caregivers, who grow it themselves, and eight larger licensed dispensaries.

Overall, the program generated an estimated $60 million to $75 million in revenue reported to the Maine Revenue Services in 2014, according to a Portland Press Herald estimate based on the 1,720 caregivers who were registered last year. Revenue sales from caregivers can only be estimated because Maine Revenue Services does not report figures for medical marijuana caregivers.

Between $4 million and $5 million was paid in medical marijuana taxes to the state in 2014. The Maine Revenue Service reported that the eight licensed dispensaries sold $16 million and generated $900,000 in sales tax in 2014, a 40 percent increase from 2013 and more than three times the amount in 2012.

There are an estimated 50,000 certified medical marijuana patients in Maine, including more than 10,000 patients buying from the Wellness Connection of Maine’s four dispensaries, Rosi said.

She said the challenge of marijuana legalization is how it is implemented. Because marijuana is illegal under federal law, businesses in the industry face challenges with banking, insurance and securing retail and growing space. She said many businesses – including medical cannabis dispensaries – are forced to remain cash-only businesses because credit card companies don’t want to work with them.

“That’s a big challenge in our industry,” she said.

Rosi said an expanded recreational marijuana market won’t necessarily push dispensaries out of business because of their focus on providing medical-grade marijuana to its clients.

“I do believe we can benefit greatly from legalization and I don’t think it will be the end of our business,” she said. “There is value in providing the best medicine. I do think there is still a position for us.”