by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — Cookies, brownies, truffles, salted caramels and gum drops. No, these are not Halloween treats. Instead, these are the forms you can get your pot in if you qualify for the state-run marijuana registry due to serious illness and prefer not to smoke it, according to Montpelier’s marijuana dispensary website vermontpatientsalliance.org. Or, you can smoke it. It is available in bud and leaf form.
The state has four medical marijuana dispensaries — three opened in 2013 and one in 2014 following a 2012 request for proposal process put out by a newly formed program within the Department of Public Safety called the Medical Marijuana Registry. A marijuana program was created by the 2011 Legislature to dispense medically therapeutic marijuana for seriously ill patients to relieve symptoms. The dispensaries are located in Montpelier, Burlington, Brattleboro and Brandon and are required by statute to be “vertically integrated,” which means they grow, harvest, make into “edibles” and sell all on site. Delivery service has been approved — with strict guidelines — to start this month.
The Montpelier dispensary — run by The Vermont Patients Alliance — inhabits the former Ariel’s Riverside Cafe building down by the Winooski River. Marijuana grows indoors on-site and also at a cultivation site in Charlotte, according to Jeffrey Wallin, director of the Vermont Crime Information Center. And, in addition, a second location for the Montpelier dispensary was requested and approved, according to meeting minutes of the Marijuana For Symptom Relief Oversight Committee held June 11. The second site is for cultivation only, said Lindsey Wells, marijuana program manager and acting chair of the oversight committee.
The Bridge visited the facility October 5 at the persistent urging of a curious Montpelier resident. Unless you get real close and inhale through your nose, you’d never know what it is, because the only visible signs in front are two parking signs declaring: “guest parking.” The non-descript brown building has glass doors through which you can see an empty waiting room containing a few black chairs. But upon closer inspection, a small sign states “Vermont Patients Alliance” and apparent is the unmistakably pungent odor of marijuana, even when the door is shut. Brooke Jenkins, dispensary director, opened the door and told The Bridge the Vermont Patients Alliance board has a “no interview” policy. Therefore, all information had to be obtained from outside sources.
Although the program exists under the auspices of the Vermont Crime Information Center — a division under the Vermont Department of Public Safety — crime has not been an issue, said Anthony Facos, chief of the Montpelier Police Department by telephone October 8. “We haven’t had any negative impacts,” Facos said. Property owner James Barrett echoed that sentiment from his perspective, calling Vermont Patients Alliance “excellent tenants.” He declined to say how much they paid in rent, however.
Lindsey Wells, marijuana program manager, told The Bridge about the program’s genesis and the Montpelier operation. The Bridge asked how much money the state gets from Vermont Patients Alliance and was told by Wells, “Sales Tax does not apply, but they pay corporate income tax.” How much tax they pay depends on annual income. “Each dispensary is required to have a sliding scale fee. (That) takes into account … a patient’s ability to pay.”
And, but for a quirk in circumstances, the dispensary would never have been in Montpelier. “Originally it was going to be Waterbury. We approved the application for Waterbury. The town allowed it, but there were issues of security,” Wells said. But then, the final, insurmountable problem lay with the landlord who “kept upping the lease” and created obstacles, so Vermont Patients Alliance (under the name ‘Patients First, Inc.’) obtained approval to use the 4,000 square-foot Montpelier 188 River Street building.
Vermont Patients Alliance did not have to go through city council or public hearings in order to start growing, harvesting and selling marijuana in town because, as far as officials were concerned, a dispensary is merely a retail operation. In according to a letter dated Nov. 1, 2012 from Clancy I. De Smet, then Montpelier planning and zoning administrator, “It is my determination that the proposed use — operation of a medical marijuana dispensary — is considered a retail use …” that is permitted in the general business zoning district.” ‘Retail sales’ is defined as: “an establishment whose principal use is the sale of products for consumption or use by the customer off the premises.” However, dispensary customers cannot just walk in like a typical retail store, rather, they must first get approved to be on the registry overseen by the state program. And, in addition to growing and selling marijuana, Vermont Patients Alliance sells “consulting” services, including: Cannabis breeding, potency testing, laboratory accreditation, ‘nutraceutical’ product certification, cultivation techniques, dispensary management and new business start-up, according to their website.
Each dispensary has to adhere to strict rules concerning security, layout and where cultivation will occur. While Wells said she could not be specific, she said they are required to have surveillance cameras, panic buttons and a contract with a private security company as well as an alarm.
Who Runs Vermont Patients Alliance?
The principals of Vermont Patients Alliance, as listed on the Secretary of State’s Corporations Division website, are Bridget Croke, president; Ramsey Harrington, vice president; John Scheer, treasurer; Kalev Freeman, secretary; Brian Mohr, director; Matt Schrag, director and Monique McHenry, director.
Who Can Get Medical Marijuana?
The 2004 Legislature legalized marijuana for medical use to alleviate symptoms associated with “cancer, multiple sclerosis, positive status for human immunodeficiency virus, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or the treatment of these conditions,” according to legislature.vermont.gov. In addition, marijuana was later approved for allieviating symptoms for diseases or medical conditions ‘that produce severe pain, nausea and/or siezures.’ However, those patients had to grow their own weed. Then, in 2011, the Legislature authorized a state supervised marijuana program allowing up to four dispensaries, so terminally ill people who could not cultivate marijuana could still get it.
Public Figures Speak Out On Recreational Marijuana Legalization:
PRO: From Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Middlesex: “I imagine that most people do not even know there is a medical marijuana dispensary operating in Montpelier; which is one sign of their success. It’s a success in that it fills an important need, is non-controversial and well-run by dedicated people with strong medical and scientific credentials.”
“I think legalization of marijuana for recreational use is inevitable. And, it’s the right thing to do. I support legalization but we have a lot of questions to resolve as we design a law that really works for Vermont.”
CON: Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos: “I am strongly opposed to legalization of marijuana. We have to really look at the data; the impact on highway fatalities, incidents with youth given the drug epidemic and drug problems here in Montpelier,” Facos said. “Even when it is legal there is a nexus for other criminal activity.” In addition, there is currently no easy roadside test to find out how much marijuana is in a driver’s system.
UNCERTAIN: Montpelier City Council Member Jean Olson: “As you know, I am new to the Council and early in my learning curve. My focus has been on the community forums, economic development and housing issues. I have no information on the impact of the medical marijuana dispensary in Montpelier or the overall impact of legalization for Vermont. It seems that research on the legal, economic and addiction perspectives is underway with presentations to the legislature planned for the upcoming session. We will be able to learn from the experiences of Colorado and be able to make informed choices.”
UNABLE TO ANSWER: Montpelier Mayor John Hollar: “I provide legal services to a medical marijuana dispensary in Brandon, so I won’t be taking a position as mayor on the issue of legalization. I am not aware of any concerns that have been raised regarding the dispensary in Montpelier.”
Overview (from the Vermont Crime Information Center):
How many patients: The Vermont Patients Alliance serves about 500 patients.There is no limit to the patients they are allowed to serve.
What form: The form of marijuana dispensed is not mandated, so the dispensary is free to come up with edibles and tinctures that best suit patients.
Supply Limit: Up to two ounces per 30-day period.
Who pays: Patients pay the dispensary directly rather than insurance companies or state programs.
Inspections: Registry staff regularly inspect each dispensary location, both as part of ongoing operations (several times per year) and to review any physical changes or updates to any location.
Financial information — how profitable is this operation? The Crime Information Center could not provide any financial information.