Last Friday, when the Vermont Senate passed S.17, a bill to establish nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries around the state, the legislation addressed a broad spectrum of public concerns ranging from where the dispensaries can be located, to what security measures must be in place on the premises, to how many total plants, dried herb and other THC-infused products — tinctures, oils, baked goods and spreadable jams — a dispensary can possess.
However, nowhere in the 53-page bill did state lawmakers explicitly spell out a critical detail about these dispensaries: Upon what criteria will aspiring medicinal pot growers be chosen? What credentials will be considered? Will they have to present a portfolio of their previous work? And if so, who gets to sample the goods?
Currently, S.17 designates much of the rule-making authority about the dispensaries to the Vermont Department of Public Service. Clearly, the Vermont State Police have ample expertise when it comes to drug manufacture, possession and distribution — mostly, that is, with the business of breaking it up. However, when it comes to the delicate business of cultivating a particularly tasty strain of Afghani Kush, Northern Lights or White Widow, Vermont's guys and gals in the green duds aren't exactly the best choice for cannabis connoisseurs. Let's face it: You want to grow great pot? Hire a great pot grower.
Better yet, hire a master gardener, like Sue Thayer.
Seven Days readers who've been following Vermont's medical marijuana debate will no doubt recall the case of Thayer, the 65-year-old mother of three who was busted on August 2, 2007 for growing 30 marijuana plants outdoors on a remote piece of her property in East Wallingford. Thayer, who had no prior criminal record, was facing felony charges because she was raising the plants for her son, Max, who has suffered from chronic kidney failure since infancy. In recent years, Max has used the marijuana his mother grew for him to cope with symptoms of nausea, suppressed appetite and chronic wasting.
Thayer's case became a cause célèbre last year after the Vermont Supreme Court denied her the right to tell a jury the reasons why she was growing marijuana, including even mentioning Max's condition or the fact that Thayer's other son, Tristan, who died of leukemia at age 25, had used medical cannabis to relieve the symptoms of his chemotherapy and stem-cell transplants.
For a time, it looked like the state's attorney in Rutland was looking to make an example of Thayer and really throw the book at her. That is, until her story got legs in the local press, which resulted in dozens of local citizens rallying to her cause. When Thayer's status conference was held in November, about 60 protesters from the group, Friends of Sue Thayer, carried signs outside the courthouse in Rutland demanding that the state call off the dogs.
Apparently, the public pressure had an effect and Thayer, who was facing the prospect of a 15-year prison term, instead had her case sent to court diversion. Under this restorative justice model, Thayer had to present a proposal for making restitution to the community for breaking the law. Once her community service is complete, her charges will be dismissed and her record wiped clean.
So, what did Thayer, a lifelong gardener, who's raised three master gardeners of her own, suggest as community service? Among other things, she's now charged with educating lawmakers about the harsh realities of medical marijuana, including the challenges faced by families such as hers when it comes to difficult process of growing your own medicinal ganga.
For most patients' families who get on the state's medical marijuana registry, "It’s really hard for them to know how to do it," Thayer explains. "Everybody who does it is really just winging it."
The choice of Thayer as a local growmaster makes logical sense. Master gardening encourages smart growing practices, such as minimizing or eliminating the use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, which may be detrimental to the health of registry patients. Many master gardeners grow using strictly organic methods. In fact, one reason Thayer says she got busted was because she was growing outdoors, "as nature intended."
As Max Thayer recalls, his brother, Tristan, a student at the University of Vermont, had to buy weed wherever he could find it and grow whatever seeds he could get his hands on. Until he was able to grow quality product for himself, it was a common practice that he would smoke his joints down to the nub, save them up, then put his leftover roaches in a pipe to smoke. According to Max, Tristan eventually developed a permanent scar on his lip from trying to smoke those roaches when his bag ran dry. Says Max, "That was something he was angry about ’til the day he died."
Today, Sue Thayer is hoping to make sure that no other Vermont family will have to go through what her family endured. Thayer says it would be "really nice" if she were allowed to apply her master gardener skills to helping other Vermont families on the state registry. In fact, another requirement of her court diversion program was that she develop a garden for a senior center or nursing home in the Rutland area.
A medical marijuana garden? “Wouldn’t that be nice?" says Thayer, with a smile. "That would be really decent."
More than decent. That would be truly kind.