New Vermont Marijuana Law Leaves Medical Patients With Conflicting Rules

Photo Credit: Aki Soga

Next month, Vermont will throw off restrictions on adult marijuana use — leaving thousands of Vermonters, who already use the drug for medical purposes, in a somewhat awkward situation.

Vermont will have two conflicting sets of marijuana laws on the books on July 1: new legal liberties for members of the general public, and old strictures for the nearly 6,000 Vermonters who are registered as medical marijuana patients and caregivers.

The Legislature has failed to clarify how the two sets of rules will interact. Even minor updates died this year when Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a bill for unrelated reasons.

Here are the conflicts

Adults who are at least 21 years old will be allowed to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana, plus an unlimited harvest from home-grown plants. A separate law limits medical marijuana patients to 2 ounces, with no exceptions for harvested marijuana.

The general public will be able to plant cannabis outdoors, as long as the growing space is securely enclosed and the property owner has given permission. Patients are allowed three additional immature plants, but they’re supposed to keep all of their plants indoors.

“We tried to update that,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It is what it is.”

Patients, who are allowed to be younger than 21 years old, can buy their marijuana from a dispensary. Adults in the general public will have no legal way to buy marijuana in Vermont.

“We need to figure out how to have two systems,” said Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, chairwoman of the House Committee on Human Services. “Or for that matter, do we now need to have two systems?”

Does Vermont’s medical program have a future?

There’s evidence that some Vermonters may be dropping out of the medical marijuana program, or not signing up, in anticipation of July 1.

Lindsey Wells, the marijuana program administrator at the Department of Public Safety, said the registry’s growth has flattened in the last several months.

Nick Karabelas, a registered patient who grows and uses marijuana to relieve chronic pain, is considering giving up his patient card. There are no dispensaries near his home in Vershire, and he sees a disadvantage in following the medical growing restrictions.

“I find myself wondering, ‘What are the benefits of being a patient in the registry?'” Karabelas wrote to lawmakers in May. “If the state and the dispensaries want to continue with the program, they’re going to need patients. As someone who advises and helps register patients, it’s getting progressively more difficult to encourage them to participate in the program.”

Shayne Lynn, a leader of two Vermont medical marijuana dispensaries, argues that the medical program remains valuable. Dispensaries offer expertise, testing, selection and a consistent way to buy marijuana.

In addition, the medical program is overseen by state government. Recreational marijuana, whether it comes from a backyard or the black market, will not be regulated by Vermont.

“From our point of view, we think it’s worth it,” said Lynn, who is executive director of Champlain Valley Dispensary and Southern Vermont Wellness in Brattleboro.

How lawmakers left the medical program hanging

The Vermont Senate passed a bill in March that would have adjusted the medical program, including opening the program to patients with any medical condition or symptom.

The bill stalled in the House Human Services Committee.

“To be perfectly honest, there were issues of greater importance to more Vermonters that came across from the Senate that we needed to deal with first,” Pugh said.

After watching the bill wend through the Legislature, Karabelas said, “I find it personally rude and insulting, as a patient, that they don’t want to deal with it.”

The Senate has now passed a special session bill that would resurrect medical marijuana changes that died with a wide-ranging bill Gov. Scott vetoed for unrelated reasons. They would include the following:

Locked container transport: Patients are currently required to transport their marijuana in a locked container. No such requirement exists for adults in the general public.

Protection for caregivers of young medical marijuana patients: When Vermont legalized adult-use marijuana, lawmakers also voted to penalize anyone who provides marijuana to children and adults under the age of 21. Some medical marijuana patients are younger than 21, and their parents who serve as caregivers have no assurance that they will be exempt from the new criminal penalties.

Background checks for dispensary employees: Medical marijuana dispensaries have asked for changes that would allow new employees to start work while their background check is being processed. The background check process can take several weeks.

Additional questions will remain waiting when lawmakers return in January 2019. By that time, state officials will have witnessed six months of legalization and should have a better sense of what needs to be changed.

“Things that are fuzzy don’t usually sit well with folks,” Lynn said. “I hope the powers that be will clarify this. … Let’s have one set of rules for cannabis in Vermont.”