Samantha Brown has spent years advocating for access to the medical marijuana that helps control her 5-year-old daughter’s seizures. She testifies at legislative hearings in Augusta, networks with parents of pediatric cannabis patients and shares stories of Kaylee’s struggle with a severe seizure disorder.

But when it comes to the marijuana legalization initiative on the November ballot, Brown is firmly opposed to expanding the cannabis market in Maine.

She is among the unlikely group of opponents in Maine’s tight-knit medical marijuana community who worry that the arrival of a recreational market will limit access to medication – especially for patients under 21 – and push small-scale growers out of business.

“This is real and this is what’s happening in other states,” said Brown, who lives in South Berwick. “This very well could happen to us.”

Medical marijuana patients and caregivers who oppose legalization point to Washington state, where many medical dispensaries closed and a patient registry was created as lawmakers developed rules and regulations for growers.

But backers of Question 1, which sets up a market where marijuana is regulated like alcohol, say an adult-use market would allow access to marijuana to people who want to use it medicinally but currently are not allowed because they don’t have a qualifying condition or can’t afford the fees to see a doctor who will certify them as a patient. The Marijuana Legalization Act proposes a separate regulatory system for recreational marijuana that does not change the state’s rules for the medical program.

“We hear from the majority of dispensaries and caregivers across the state who are passionately supportive of Question 1,” said Alysia Melnick, political director for the campaign. “They agree there’s tremendous value in expanding access to all adult patients.”

TENSION EMERGES OVER PROPOSAL

Question 1 will ask voters: “Do you want to allow the possession and use of marijuana under state law by persons who are at least 21 years of age, and allow the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?”

The legalization act would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to 2½ ounces of prepared marijuana. It also allows adults to grow up to six mature plants, 12 immature plants and an unlimited amount of seedlings without a license from the state. Consumption would be limited to nonpublic places, but would allow towns to permit social clubs where adults could consume marijuana. Marijuana sales would be taxed at 10 percent.

The initiative places a limit on retail marijuana cultivation at 800,000 square feet of plant canopy, but gives the Legislature the authority to increase that limit to meet consumer demand. Two types of cultivation licenses would be issued: for facilities with 3,000 square feet or less of canopy space and those with up to 30,000 square feet of canopy space. Forty percent of licenses must go to small-scale growers, a requirement backers of the initiative say was designed to give caregivers an opportunity to expand their small businesses into the recreational market.

Though the legalization bill was crafted largely by people from the medical marijuana community, there were signs early on that there was tension over the proposal.

When volunteers from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol arrived in Augusta in February to deliver petitions to the secretary of state, they were met with a loud protest from medical marijuana growers and patients. The protesters said the referendum would put marijuana in the hands of big business and destroy the local industry that has sprung up around medicinal uses of the drug, the same arguments they now use in their grassroots social media campaign against Question 1.

The caregivers and patients opposed to Question 1 have not formed a formal group to oppose the initiative, making it hard to assess how widespread the opposition is. But caregivers like Dennis Hammac of Genesis Farm in Milo say opposition is growing as the vote draws closer. Opponents are pushing back against legalization with social media posts and one-on-one conversations, but don’t have the same financial resources as the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which is backed by the national Marijuana Policy Project, Hammac said. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has raised over $436,000 this year, according to its most recent campaign finance reports.

“This is David and Goliath,” said Hammac, who has covered his van with No on 1 decals. “We don’t have the money to fight them.”

‘WE DO THINGS OUR OWN WAY HERE’

After Washington state legalized marijuana in 2012 under Initiative 502, the medical and recreational industries existed entirely separately from one another. Patient advocates pushed for that separation to stay in place, but others, including business owners licensed under the recreational law, wanted the industries to merge so everyone was subject to the same rules and requirements.

In 2015, the state legislature passed the Cannabis Patient Protection Act, resulting in the closure of all dispensaries without an Initiative 502 license. The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board issued 222 new retail licenses to replace more than 1,500 medical marijuana dispensaries. The bill also established a voluntary medical marijuana registry. Patients who register are given greater legal protections with law enforcement and can purchase a larger amount of marijuana and grow plants at home.

“Maine is not Washington. We do things our own way here,” Melnick said. “You can look at our medical marijuana program to see that play out. Our program is very unique and is touted as one of the best, if not the best, in the country. We can learn from other states and the mistakes that they’ve made.”

Melnick said the Maine initiative was written with the state’s medical program in mind. Mainers approved medical marijuana in 1999 and the program was expanded in 2009 to allow both dispensaries and small-scale growers to serve patients. There are now as many as 48,000 patients in Maine.

Under the initiative, 40 percent of growing licenses are set aside for registered caregivers and dispensaries that have held a registration in good standing with the Department of Health and Human Services for two years. The law directs DHHS to give preference to applicants who have at least two years of cultivation experience under the medical marijuana program.

“The Maine (legalization) law recognizes there are people who have been providing cannabis to patients successfully for years. We want to take advantage and honor them by giving them preference in licensing,” Melnick said. “We think there’s a great opportunity and need for caregivers, dispensary operators and medical professionals who specialize in the use of medical cannabis and have a robust practice in Maine.”

MEETING MEDICAL NEEDS A PRIORITY

The Wellness Connection of Maine, which operates four of the state’s eight dispensaries, has endorsed Question 1. Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, a trade group that advocates for the medical program, is not taking a position on the initiative, but is focusing on protecting the future of the medical program.

“We are 100 percent in support of protecting the medical program, regardless of whether legalization passes or not,” said Catherine Lewis, chairwoman of the MMCM board. “We have a portion of our membership in support and a good portion that is against it.”

Lewis said board members have concerns about the legalization bill, including the limits on canopy size, tax rates and whether patients will continue to have access to the medicine they need.

“We’re concerned that people at the state level don’t understand the need for two separate programs and will push for the sunsetting of the medical program,” she said. “That would hurt the small cottage industry that is already established and would push patients to an area where they will not be served for their medical needs.”

Hillary Lister, a registered lobbyist and longtime medical marijuana advocate, said caregivers across the state – and especially in rural areas – are concerned about increased regulations for medical growers that could follow the launch of a legal recreational market. Additional regulation, such as requirements for seed-to-sale tracking systems, would be costly upgrades and could force caregivers out of business, she said. “People have put lots of resources into small-scale cultivation. This (medical) law has allowed people to make a living in all these towns where mills have closed,” she said. “There’s a lot of concern they simply won’t be able to afford to comply.”

There currently are more than 2,700 caregivers across Maine who employ more than 150 people. Many caregivers run their small business from their homes, though it is increasingly common for caregivers to move their growing operations into commercial spaces.

CONCERNS ABOUT A ‘GREEN RUSH’

Mike Damron, a caregiver from Augusta, said many people are surprised to find out he opposes marijuana legalization. He worries that it will become difficult for caregivers to stay in business and that loss will come at a steep cost for patients. Many caregivers specialize in growing non-psychoactive strains that are tailored to the needs of their patients and often donate medicine to patients, he said. In a recreational market, those strains have little value compared to more potent strains that provide a strong high.

“They say it won’t affect the medical side, but down the line it could push out caregivers,” Damron said. “If it goes through, I don’t think the medical environment will be endangered in the next few months, but in the next year it could be. No matter how they put the wording in, it puts the medical program on the chopping block.”

Hammac, the caregiver from Milo, takes issue with many aspects of the initiative, from the cap on canopy space to the requirement that recreational cultivators send their fingerprints to the FBI for a background check. He characterizes the push for legalization as a “green rush” that focuses on money at the expense of patients who depend on cannabis to control pain or treat diseases.

“Nothing about that bill protects Maine. Nothing about that bill protects Mainers,” he said. “Nothing about the bill is good for us.”

Like Hammac, Samantha Brown has issues with many aspects of the initiative, but her biggest concern is access to medicine for kids like Kaylee. If the medical program was dismantled, people under 21 wouldn’t be allowed to purchase marijuana at all. And if caregivers who specialize in the type of cannabis oil Kaylee uses go out of business, she could be left without her medicine.

“(Recreational growers) aren’t focused on what a specialty patient like Kaylee needs,” she said. “It’s not about the patient and access, it’s about money. And it’s about money at the cost of my child.”