Vermont: Medical Marijuana Industry On The Rise

Jacob Redmond

Well-Known Member
When medical marijuana dispensaries opened in Burlington and Brattleboro one and two years ago, respectively, the starting clientele was only 25 people.

Today, said operator Shayne Lynn, they help a total of 1,000 people to ease their pain.

"Each week we get new patients on the registry," said Lynn, executive director for Champlain Valley Dispensary and Southern Vermont Wellness.

Vermont's medical marijuana industry – there are four nonprofit dispensaries across the state – is growing despite a federal ban, and the state is easing the patient and dispensary restrictions.

"We're here to stay," said Alex Ford, executive director of the Rutland County Organics, which operates a marijuana dispensary in Brandon. "People are inquiring more and more."

The state's administrative rules committee approved several marijuana law provisions last week, permitting the state's four dispensaries to deliver marijuana and produce and sell hemp.

Farm-grown, agricultural hemp is administered separately under the Agency of Agriculture, and is exempt from the same security standards as therapeutic hemp products.

The rule changes come amid medical marijuana's proliferation in Vermont. In the past nine years, the number of marijuana prescriptions has increased more than 7,200 percent.

Data tracks the medicinal marijuana program back to 2006, when 30 marijuana prescriptions were on record, said Lindsey Wells, administrator for the Department of Public Safety's marijuana program.

Now there are 2,200 marijuana prescriptions statewide.

She said legislation enacted in 2014 opened the way for expanded registration numbers.

"There used to be a cap on patients that could designate a dispensary," Wells said. "That was removed in 2014 with Act 155. Previous to (Act) 155, there were 1,000 patients that could designate."

The majority of Vermont's medical marijuana patients – about 80 percent of them, Wells said – fill their prescriptions at one of the four medical marijuana dispensaries located in Brandon, Burlington, Montpelier and Brattleboro.

The remainder of patients can grow up to nine plants, two of which can be mature at any given time.
Wells said the state's four dispensaries employ 76 people. An average worker might start out in cultivation, then transition to the front desk or a management position.

"Some (employees) have a laboratory background or a farm tech background," she said. "There are herbalists. ... Some (employees) are bakers."

Medicinal marijuana is considered a pharmaceutical product, and is not subject to state sales tax. However, the nonprofit dispensaries pay corporate taxes. Employees' wages are taxed, and an annual $20,000 licensing fee is assessed for each dispensary.

Based on March statistics, which describe patient populations by county, Chittenden County accounted for approximately 29 percent of marijuana prescriptions in Vermont, with 385. Washington County and Windsor County each had 281, each accounting for about 21 percent of the total patient count. Rutland County had 92 registered patients, or 7 percent.

Ford said Chittenden County saw the largest uptick in marijuana-prescribed patients.

"Chittenden County has a third of the (state's) population, so naturally they're going to have a lot more growth," she said.

Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, president of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, said illegal resale or "diversion" of medical marijuana is one of his biggest concerns with the industry.

And with increasing marijuana treatment numbers, he said, more people will be tempted to sell off their excess medicine.

But he draws a distinction between recreational legalization and marijuana's medicinal use.

"Medical marijuana is different in most of our minds from recreational purposes," Merkel said of the police community. "If somebody is suffering from a debilitating condition, something that's been with them for a while, i.e. terminal cancer, I think chiefs of police would consider that as maybe a viable use."

Medical marijuana surfacing in the black market is also a consideration for dispensary operators.

"It is a real concern, and it needs to go back to the regulations, the enforcement, the tracking we do here," Lynn said.

As a precautionary measure, dispensary employees undergo a background check through Wells' office at the Department of Public Safety. Lynn said his seed and inventory databases are voluntarily open to the state's review to assure "transparency."

Ford and Lynn said they hedge patients' desire to sell prescription marijuana by keeping prices above street value.

"There are influences on prices from the black market," Lynn said. "When we do set some of our prices, we have to take that into consideration because that temptation for some folks would be too great."

Lynn said street prices and dispensary prices are similar – anywhere from $300 to $450 per ounce, he said – but it depends on the marijuana's quality.

Laws restrict marijuana prescriptions to two ounces of marijuana over a 30-day period. Dispensaries offer several forms of marijuana products, including THC concentrates, edibles, infused tinctures and the dried flower bud.

Michael Fitzgerald, police chief in Brattleboro, was asked if the community's dispensary caused problems from the police perspective.

"No," he said. "I don't know what to tell you, no. There's really nothing to even elaborate on."

Legalization of recreational marijuana may be weighed by the Legislature in the upcoming session. If passed, Vermont would become the first state to legalize it without a popular-ballot vote.


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