How much profit can a nonprofit make without exceeding what’s suitable for its legal status?

That, interestingly enough, has become one of the central questions being raised about who will get to operate the state’s medical marijuana distribution centers.

Promoted to let seriously ill patients acquire a substance that could calm them and offer substantial pain relief, the use of palliative pot was approved by voters in a 2009 referendum. The state chose to implement the law by establishing distribution centers in each of Maine’s eight public health districts.

In lieu of the state operating them, officials decided to offer them to private groups to run as non-profit businesses offering “reasonable compensation” to the non-profit’s members, directors or officers.

not defining “reasonable,” and by permitting patients with the proper prescriptions to buy up to $1,400 of marijuana a month, the state has drawn interest from numerous outside groups, several of them located in California, where legalized grass has made its greatest advances.

The requirement that the dispensaries be run by Maine residents has led to an influx of immigrants vowing fealty to the Pine Tree State, leaving some longtime residents upset that their turf is being violated by flatlanders.

While some authorities say that the rules governing the dispensaries mean no one will get rich running one, the influx of hopefuls is seen by others as a sign there might be gold in them thar pot plants.

If that’s the case, the state will have to pay very close attention to be sure that patients, not profits, are the pot providers’ principal priority.