Maine Attorney General Janet Mills says passage of the marijuana legalization initiative on the November ballot would effectively make it legal for children to possess marijuana, an assertion strongly disputed by legalization proponents who say the referendum seeks to prevent youth access to cannabis.

Mills told WCSH-TV on Wednesday night that she is troubled by the legalization proposal, which is Question 1 on the ballot. If it passes, she said, it would repeal existing statutory language that is used to prosecute cases of possession by minors.

“The effect is it makes it legal for anybody of any age – 2 years old, 20 years old, 80 years old – to possess up to 2½ ounces of marijuana. That’s disturbing to me,” Mills said. “I have to think it’s something more than a drafting error because they deliberately wrote a 30-page bill. It’s very troublesome, the language of the bill.”

Scott Anderson, an attorney for Verrill Dana who represents the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Maine, said it is “simply not the case” that the bill would allow anyone under 21 to legally use or possess marijuana. Anderson said Mills’ office previously reviewed the initiative language, which has been public for more than a year, and did not raise this issue, and that Mills’ comments show a “last-minute change in position we don’t understand.”

“The language makes it very clear only people 21 years and older are legally allowed to possess and use marijuana,” Anderson said. “That provision is repeated in numerous sections of the bill. The plain language of the bill makes it perfectly clear.”

Legalization proponents say passage of the referendum would create a regulated market that prevents those under 21 from buying marijuana at licensed stores because IDs would be checked, something that does not happen when marijuana is sold on the black market.

The Marijuana Legalization Act proposes to regulate marijuana like alcohol in Maine. If it passes, adults 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to 2½ ounces of cannabis, grow their own plants and buy marijuana from licensed retail stores. The proposal also allows marijuana social clubs in municipalities that approve them, and places a 10 percent tax on marijuana sales.

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who opposes legalization, also said the bill would legalize marijuana for children. Discussing Question 1 on Ray Richardson’s radio show on WLOB in Portland, she said the initiative makes it legal for children to smoke marijuana because it repeals a provision of state law prohibiting marijuana possession that is referenced in the juvenile code.

Mills was out of the office Thursday and unavailable for comment. Timothy Feeley, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said “the initiated bill purports to allow only people over 21 years of age to buy and consume marijuana. However, it says nothing about people under the age of 21. Nothing in this bill makes it unlawful for a child to possess marijuana – there are no penalties.”

Feeley said the assumption is that juveniles will still be prohibited from using marijuana. However, he said, the referendum proposal repeals the existing law that makes it a civil violation for possession, including by juveniles and adults under the age of 21.

“This is the very statute that makes it a juvenile crime to possess marijuana,” he said in an email. “Repealing this provision of Title 22 makes it lawful for juveniles of any age to buy, possess and consume a ‘usable amount of marijuana.’ ” The same would be true for people ages 18 to 20, Feeley said.

Scott Anderson, the attorney for the Yes on 1 campaign, said the Attorney General’s Office is wrong because the legalization proposal repeals only the civil violation for adults and does not affect other laws, including the ones that make it illegal to furnish marijuana to minors or adults under 21.

“Only those 21 and older will be allowed to possess small amounts of marijuana. If you are 20, it is illegal. It is most certainly illegal if you are 6,” he said. “When you enact a bill that says it is not legal unless you are 21, it’s not legal unless you are 21.”

A summary of the “intent and content” of Question 1, prepared by the Attorney General’s Office and included in a guide for voters, does not say the bill would legalize marijuana for children. Instead, it outlines how it would allow “persons 21 years of age and older” to use, possess and transport marijuana, cultivate plants, and consume it a nonpublic place such as a private residence.

Scott Gagnon, of Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities, which opposes legalization, called on the Yes on 1 campaign to encourage voters to reject the proposal.

“The only ethical and moral thing for the Yes on 1 Campaign to do is encourage a ‘no’ vote and come back with a better initiative,” he said.

Scott Anderson said the Yes on 1 campaign will continue to encourage voters to support the initiative.