A legislative panel charged with weighing legalizing marijuana in Vermont will focus first on whether the state’s medical marijuana program is reaching all the people it should.
“People in my area are having difficulty getting cannabis,” Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), chair of the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee, said Monday at the first of its six meetings focused on marijuana. “I’m looking to expand the availability of medical marijuana.”
But Sears said the committee’s September 23 meeting will focus on how the state can expand access to medical marijuana. State law limits the number of medical marijuana dispensaries to four. Patients are required to register with the state and provide a doctor’s verification that they have been diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition.
About 2,700 Vermonters are on the state medical marijuana registry, making them eligible to buy products from one of the state-licensed dispensaries in Burlington, Montpelier, Brandon and Brattleboro.
Sears said that he wants to hear from patients about why they are having difficulty accessing medical marijuana. Eli Harrington, a marijuana legalization activist from Winooski, argued that dispensary prices are too high because of a lack of competition.
Shayne Lynn, director of the dispensaries in Burlington and Brattleboro, said in an interview that restrictions on the program make it tough for dispensaries to do business. The facilities pay a $25,000 annual fee, aren’t allowed to advertise and are required to operate as nonprofits.
“We need more patients,” he said. Projections that his dispensaries would reach 3,000 patients this year have fallen short, and the number remains at about 1,700, he said.
This year, the state expanded the list of qualifying medical conditions to include chronic pain. But Lynn said his dispensaries have not seen
an influx of new patients as a result.
“How are we going to get the word out to Vermonters that chronic pain is now allowed?” Lynn said. “We can’t advertise.”
Geography makes access to the dispensaries difficult in areas such as Bennington and the Northeast Kingdom, he said. Home delivery, which started this year, should help, he said, but that service has gotten off to a slow start because of safety concerns. Lynn suggested the state could allow limited-hour satellite dispensaries.