Vermont's Department of Public safety has announced guidelines for the state's first medical marijuana dispensaries. Patients, advocates, and those who hope to run a facility say they're pleased with the results.
"They did a real good job," said state-registered medical marijuana patient Mark Tucci. The Manchester resident has played an integral role in crafting the state's medical marijuana law. Eight years after the initial legislation passed, new rules are in place for businesses to sell marijuana to patients like him.
Vermont has about 450 medical marijuana patients. They currently grow their own marijuana or have a designated caregiver do it for them. However, that will change soon.
As many as four distribution centers state-wide could be operational by the end of the year. Legislation prohibits more and limits the number of patients in the state to 1,000.
In a series of memos the U.S. Attorney General has held that medical marijuana would not be prosecuted if within the spirit of state laws. However, agents have raided operations in states as populated as California or as sparse as Montana.
Patients and advocates say strict regulations in Vermont - along with the patient limit - should limit fears of raids. Vermont cities and towns can ban or zone dispensaries as they see fit.
Patient population exploded in states investigated by the federal government. Some blamed dispensaries for patient growth. Vermont's patient requirements have thus far kept numbers low and fraud cases to a minimum. Patients and advocates say the strict limits and regulations should keep it that way when dispensaries open.
"They went from the position of 'What's best for the patients' first," said Tucci. He says the second priority was preventing diversion to non-patients.
"I think that hopefully for the federal government when they look at Vermont they look at Vermont as being a model," said Virginia Renfrew, a spokeswoman for the Vermont People with AIDS Coalition. She points to Maine's system as a successful system.
The program was due to be running by mid-summer but Hurricane Irene delayed its timeline. Tucci said smart, sensible rules were more important than speed.
Only one person will be allowed in a dispensary at a time under the rules and customers will be seen by appointment only. No customer will be allowed in the building without their state-issued medical marijuana card
Tucci says he would advise most of his fellow patients to use a dispensary but he won't be walking though that door soon. That's because the law prevents those who buy medicine at dispensaries from growing their own. After years of medical marijuana use to treat the pain of Multiple sclerosis, Tucci says he has already found the strains that work best for him.
However, according to a recent survey of patients, 90% say they would make the switch. Half of all the state's patients responded to the survey. Many said they lack the expertise and the physical capability to grow medicinal cannabis.
Those who choose to buy their medicine may see Burlington resident Shayne Lynn behind the counter. He has rented a space for what he hopes will be "Champlain Valley Dispensary." He says he's no expert at growing marijuana though. "We'll bring in a consultant to help grow," he explained.
Lynn says he'll apply for a certificate as soon as a legislative committee signs off on the rules. He'll get his money back from his landlord if his state-certification application is rejected, but not from the state.
He'll have to pay $2,500 just to apply for one of the four certificates offered by Vermont. If he gets the job, he'll pay the state $20,000 dollars in his first year, and $30,000 in the years to follow. Public Safety spokespeople say the fees are high because the program needs to be cost neutral.
That's on top of startup costs expected to eclipse $150,000. "We're going to have to balance offering affordable medicinal cannabis with running a non-profit business," said Lynn.
Getting the certificate will be no easy task. The state requires the non-profit to have a solid business plan. The dispensary must be highly-secure and more than 1,000 feet from any schools or daycares. The dispensary operator is allowed a second, separate building as a grow facility. The state will check the background of all employees, board-members, and the dispensary applicant.
Once operating, workers must account for marijuana inventories at all times. When in-transit the cannabis must be kept in a locked container. Video surveillance will be required and the business is subject to search at any time.
The rules also allow the dispensaries to grow more than a dozen plants before they have patients. That's because it can take several weeks for marijuana to flower. Dispensaries with patients will be allowed to house 28 ounces of marijuana. They'll be limited to about 126 plants. All but 28 of those plants must be immature. Those with more than 14 patients will be allowed more on a per-patient basis.
Facilities that exceed the limit will face fine and certification suspension if excess isn't turned over to authorities.
Patients and advocates said they would like the state to make marijuana testing available, allow for delivery system, and an alternative method of receiving medicine for those who grow their own but suffer crop loss. However, those we spoke to, say that can wait.
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