VT: Vermont Considers Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

VT: Vermont Considers Medical Marijuana Dispensaries
burlingtonfreepress/ By Terri Hallenbeck / April 7 2011

MONTPELIER — Here’s what Shayne Lynn envisions somewhere in Chittenden County: an office as non-descript as a doctor’s office or a pharmacy from which he would sell marijuana to those with qualifying medical conditions.

There’d be a waiting room. Clients would be seen by appointment only. There’d be security. He might also offer clients yoga, acupuncture and Reiki. He’d probably grow the marijuana somewhere else, at an indoor facility.

Lynn could become one of the first people to run such an operation in Vermont if proposed legislation the Senate is expected to consider this week passes.

Lynn, a 40-year-old professional photographer who lives in Burlington, said he believes in marijuana’s medicinal value for those who suffer from chronic pain and he thinks it’s wrong that such people have nowhere legal to buy the relief.

“People having to go out and buy it on a corner from someone — it’s not right,” Lynn said. “I see this as an opportunity to run a successful, local, nonprofit business which would provide medical respectability to the current and future patients on the registry. It would open a more honest, serious dialogue about the benefits of cannabis.”

Medical marijuana has been legal in Vermont since 2004, for those with qualifying illnesses — including cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis — who sign up for the state’s registry. The 2004 law allows patients to grow their own marijuana, but advocates say many find that a daunting task, leaving them with the prospect of making illegal deals for street dope.

The state’s medical marijuana registry specifies, “The Marijuana Registry is neither a source for marijuana nor can the Registry provide information to patients on how to obtain marijuana.”

The answer, advocates say, is to legalize a small number of medical marijuana dispensaries — nonprofit operations that would grow marijuana and sell it to those on the medical marijuana registry.

“They have a right to have this symptom-relief medication, yet we’ve given them no ability to get it in a legal manner in which the product is safe,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations Committee that passed the bill the Senate will consider this week.

The bill has the backing of Gov. Peter Shumlin. With a series of restrictions added that are designed to avoid problems seen in other states, it also has the support of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn.

Some worry, however, that the dispensaries will become drug havens and the medical marijuana registry will quickly be flooded with those looking for a legal way to smoke pot.

“A number of other states have had problems with abuse of registry and crime surrounding the dispensaries,” said Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, who voted against the bill when the Senate Finance Committee considered it last week. He noted that marijuana, even for medical use, remains illegal under federal law.

Avoiding pitfalls

Vermont has 344 people on its medical marijuana registry, each of whom pays $50 a year and must provide proof from a medical professional of a qualifying condition. Half of those on the registry are over age 50 and one-quarter have cancer, Flynn said.

According to the national Medical Marijuana Project, Vermont has the smallest medical marijuana program in the country.

One of those on the registry is Mark Tucci, a Manchester man with multiple sclerosis who was involved in creating the state medical marijuana law. He said he uses marijuana to quell side effects of his multiple sclerosis, including vertigo, and has found it very effective.

Tucci said he grows his own marijuana but a few times a year could use some help. He has been active in working on legislation to allow dispensaries.

He has traveled to California and New Mexico to see how dispensaries worked — or didn’t work — there.

“I saw all kinds — low-budget dispensaries that looked like crack houses all the way up to ones with rooms where you can take treatment,” he said.

In most places, he said, the dispensaries blended into the landscape. “It was treated like you and I standing in a Rite Aid,” he said.

In California, dispensaries proliferated. Opponents say some of the dispensaries there are a front for legalizing marijuana, with few rules about who qualifies. Supporters say that’s because the state left it up to local municipalities to regulation the dispensaries. Seven states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana dispensaries, with varying rules in each state.

Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, said the legislation is stacked with restrictions that will make Vermont’s situation different. “We’ve been taking baby steps in Vermont. One of the benefits of baby steps is we’ve avoided the problems of other states,” he said.

One thing Tucci said he learned was that Vermont should not have storefront dispensaries, where clients walk in to buy their marijuana. Those generate more concerns about crime and abuse of the registries. Thus, the Vermont bill would require clients to have an appointment.

The Senate bill limits the number of dispensaries in Vermont — the bill currently calls for two but on Flynn’s recommendation senators plan to change it to four (Flynn said budget-wise that would bring in more revenue from fees and make it more economical to monitor the sites). The legislation allows only those on the medical marijuana registry to become clients, paying the state a $50 fee to join. The bill would limit the number of clients that may register with a dispensary.

The dispensaries would be allowed to cultivate up to 28 mature marijuana plant at a time and 28 ounces of usable marijuana. They may not be located within 1,000 feet of a school or day care, must have security and limited access to the marijuana supply. The dispensaries are subject to state inspection and auditing.

They would not be allowed to have anyone convicted of drug-related offenses working there. There would be limits on the amount of marijuana they could sell to a client. Would-be operators of a dispensary would have to pay a $2,500 fee to apply and a $32,000 fee for a license if approved by the state.

For Flynn, a former prosecutor who became state public safety commissioner in January, restrictions on the number of dispensaries, the number of clients and the set-up of the operations are key to his support. His department would have a role in fine-tuning the rules if the bill passes.

“It’s a very defined set-up. There has to be an appointment made,” he said. “I’m never going to stand out there and say we want to put marijuana in the hands of people on the streets. With this, we want to put it in the hands of people who need it medically.”

Fynn said it’s also important to him to make sure the dispensaries don’t drain his department’s budget. He asked for an increase in the originally proposed fees so that they cover the two positions he thinks he’ll need to handle registration and monitoring of the dispensaries. Lawmakers wondered if the $32,000 licensing fee was too high but decided it could be changed later.

Flynn noted that local communities may have restrictions of their own, including banning dispensaries. Still, Flynn expressed relief that it if the dispensary bill passes this year he won’t simultaneously have to handle implementing marijuana decriminalization, which is not expected to pass this year.

Brock, who is among lawmakers opposed to the bill, said he not only worries about problems that the dispensaries will create, he remains dubious of marijuana’s medical value. “I think the jury’s still out on that,” he said.

Running a dispensary

Lynn, a professional photographer who lives in Burlington, has been following efforts in recent years to legalize dispensaries. With an interest in alternative medications, he is among those interested in establishing one in the greater Burlington area.

He concedes there are a lot of unknowns, given that no one’s ever done it here. He understands it’s an unusual enterprise, growing and selling something that’s illegal except to a small market. Figuring out the financing will be a challenge, he noted, because banks aren’t going to lend money for the enterprise.

Len Goodman, executive director of the largest dispensary in New Mexico, said he had no experience growing or selling marijuana before he started his operation in Santa Fe in 2009.

He operates an indoor growing facility that’s separate from the office where marijuana is distributed. The distribution office sits in a strip mall near a yoga studio, a contractor, a fitness center, a real estate office and a tattoo parlor. The sign on the door says NMNM, the initials for New MexiCann Natural Medicine Inc., he said, but the neighboring businesses all know it’s a medical marijuana dispensary.

There are security cameras and alarms, but no guards, he said. Occasionally, someone comes looking to buy marijuana without a registration card, Goodman said. They are turned away and he has had no problems with crime, he said.

“A lot of people were initially concerned about violence and a potential crime increase,” Goodman said. “We just haven’t experienced any of it.”

Customers arrange their order by phone or mail and come to the office to pick it up, he said. Goodman said he harvests marijuana every two weeks and it sells out immediately. Unlike in some states, his dispensary can only sell what it grows itself. Goodman also sells edible marijuana products, including fudge, lattes and truffles.

“It’s like a corner drugstore,” he said, except the customers have to belong to the club.

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