hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




State takes medicinal pot a step further

Marijuana dispensaries planned for patients under new Vermont law


Contributing writer


Some time ago, a constituent came to state Sen. Dick Sears with an unlikely complaint: He couldn’t get enough high-quality marijuana.

The constituent, Mark Tucci, has multiple sclerosis and smokes medically prescribed marijuana to relieve chronic pain and muscle spasms. For several years, Tucci has been outspoken about how marijuana has helped him manage his illness well enough to raise a family and start a nonprofit group.

Under a 2007 law, Vermonters with chronic conditions like MS, cancer and AIDS can register with the state and obtain a prescription for medical marijuana. But under the law, medical-marijuana users like Tucci were limited to either growing the marijuana themselves or having a caregiver grow it for them. Tucci elected to grow his own and even wrote a how-to book for other medical-marijuana users.

Some patients said the state’s system left them concerned for their safety, however. The homes of patients sometimes become the targets of thieves looking for marijuana plants.

Tucci, who previously lived in Manchester, moved to another town to avoid such harassment. Although he has been outspoken about the issue in the past, he also declined, through an intermediary, to be interviewed for this story.

Sears, D-Bennington, said it’s hard for someone like Tucci, a patient with a debilitating condition, to keep up with the work required to ensure an adequate supply.

“Even he’s had times when he couldn’t grow it and he’s been forced to go on the black market,” Sears explained.

It was Tucci’s story that galvanized Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to co-sponsor a bill authorizing the creation of up to four medical marijuana dispensaries in Vermont. Under the bill, which passed both houses of the Legislature in April and May, patients enrolled in the state’s medical marijuana program will be able to come to regulated, secure “storefront” locations to obtain the drug.

A similar proposal got serious discussion in the Legislature last year, only to fall short of passage in the end. But this year, the Senate approved the idea by a vote of 25-4 in April, and the House backed the plan last month, 99-44. Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat who had co-sponsored last year’s version of the bill when he was president of the state Senate, is expected to sign it into law.

Federal-state conflict

Marijuana dispensaries created under the new law would be run by nonprofit groups, which would grow marijuana and sell it to patients. The dispensaries would be regulated by the state Department of Public Safety. Groups running the centers would need to pay a $20,000 state fee the first year and $30,000 every year after that, and dispensary sales would be subject to state taxes.

But some proponents of medical marijuana aren’t exhaling yet, because the drug remains illegal under federal law.

Two years ago, advocates celebrated after the Obama administration pledged to halt what had been frequent federal raids of medical-marijuana providers in the 14 states that authorize medical use of the drug. Lately, however, federal law enforcement officials have been signaling their continuing disapproval of marijuana dispensaries – and threatening to take action against them.

Shortly before last month’s vote in the Vermont House, the U.S. attorney for Vermont, Tristram Coffin, sent a letter to the state public safety commissioner in which he warned that his office would continue to enforce federal drug laws “vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.”

Similar threats have been lodged in recent months by federal prosecutors in several other states, including Rhode Island, which passed a medical-marijuana dispensary bill similar to Vermont’s. Washington’s governor vetoed a similar bill because of concerns raised by federal prosecutors there.

Still, supporters say bills like Vermont’s are a sign that the public has grown more comfortable with the idea of easier access to marijuana as a treatment for the pain and nausea associated with serious illnesses.

“This is kind of a progression over many years’ time,” said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a national medical-marijuana advocacy group with offices in California and Washington, D.C.

Over time, he said, state legislators and voters have come to support the dispensary model to distribute medical marijuana.

“The trend is definitely moving in the direction of license and distribution with the aim of improving access,” Hermes said.

Proposals to allow the medical use of marijuana have languished in the state legislatures of New York and Massachusetts, although Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative in 2008 that decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of the drug.

Many medical-marijuana advocates believe it’s important to separate the decriminalization proposals from the drug’s use as medical treatment, because decriminalization efforts like the one in Massachusetts still provide no legal way for patients to obtain the drug.

Pushing for legal access

Vermont’s first medical marijuana law, passed in 2004, was considered one of the most restrictive among the states that allowed medical marijuana, both in the list of conditions for which the drug could be prescribed and for how many plants each patient was allowed to have.

Even today, fewer than 400 patients are enrolled in the state’s medical-marijuana program.

A 2007 revision loosened up those restrictions but still did nothing to ensure patients access to a steady supply of high-quality marijuana, said Larry Phillips, a Burlington-area patient who runs a Vermont medical marijuana Web site.

“It had to magically appear in your pocket, or you had to grow it yourself,” he said.

Under the 2007 law, a patient also could hire another individual to grow the marijuana, but that was difficult in practice, Phillips said. Some states allow caregivers to grow for more than one patient, but Vermont’s law had a strict one-to-one ratio. The result was that few people were willing to make the investment of time or money or risk possible harassment from law enforcement.

“Good luck finding one,” Phillips said of the caregiver-growers envisioned in the 2007 law. “You couldn’t even advertise.”

Although he’s pleased with new dispensary bill overall, Phillips said it’s not perfect. Among his chief criticisms is that patients must choose either to opt into the dispensary system or stay with the grow-your-own option. One can’t do both, and that’s a problem if patients find the dispensary system doesn’t work for them, he said.

One significant difference between Vermont’s bill and medical-marijuana dispensary systems set up in other states is that licensing and oversight of Vermont’s dispensaries will be the responsibility of the state Department of Public Safety, rather than the state health department. Advocates hope this will placate critics in law enforcement and head off potential harassment from the federal government.

“It gives it more credibility,” Sears said.

But no one is sure what the federal government will do if Vermont allows the dispensaries to open.

Federal threat shifts votes

State Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, said she changed her mind and voted against the dispensary bill after reading last month’s letter from Coffin, the U.S. attorney. The letter suggested that legislators voting in favor of the bill would be complicit in a crime, she said.

“They made it really clear,” Komline said. “I had every intention of voting for it until we got the letter.”

Among local legislators, every state senator from Bennington and Rutland counties – three Democrats and two Republicans – voted for the bill.

House members from the two counties backed the bill by a margin of 15-10, with most Democrats supporting the proposal and most Republicans opposing it. The exceptions were Democratic Reps. Cynthia Browning of Arlington and Timothy Corcoran II of Bennington, who voted against the bill, and Republican Reps. Tom Burditt of West Rutland and Jim Eckhardt of Chittenden, who voted in favor of it. Independent Rep. Will Stevens of Shoreham voted for the bill, while Rep. James McNeil, R-Rutland Town, was absent.

Komline said some of those who voted no were ambivalent but felt it was their duty to uphold federal law.

“Nobody felt good no matter which way they voted,” she said.

As of late May, the bill was still awaiting the governor’s signature. When he signs it, it could take a year before any of the dispensaries open their doors in Vermont.

Your Ad Here

Your Ad Here

Your Ad Here

Your Ad Here