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Medical Marijuana Dispensary Bill Headed for Full Senate Vote This Week

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The Vermont Senate is poised to "just say yes" to medical marijuana dispensaries.

That's the word from state Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), one of three cosponsors of a bill (S.17) that would establish two nonprofit centers where patients on Vermont's medical registry could get safe, reliable — and super dank — cannabis.

White tells Seven Days the bill is set for a Senate vote this week (as early as Tuesday, as late as Friday) and has more than enough votes for passage. At last count, White says she had a bipartisan group of 19 or 20 senators (out of 30) in the yes camp. The measure won unanimous approval in the Senate Government Operations Committee, which White chairs, on March 11.

Vermont's 6-year-old medical marijuana law allows patients suffering from debilitating, often terminal, medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis, AIDS and cancer to grow marijuana plants or have a caregiver grow it for them. But for patients unable to grow, there's no legal place to obtain it, forcing many of the 292 patients on the registry to find it on the black market — often for much higher prices than they'd pay at a dispensary.

The marijuana dispensary bill was passed in committee last year but was abandoned before a floor vote because the votes — particularly Republican votes — weren't there, White says. One of the cosponsors of last year's bill was Peter Shumlin, then the Senate president and now the governor.

Before reaching the Senate floor, the bill may have to go through the Finance Committee for a "quick review," White says, to approve fees that would be charged to nonprofits applying to run the dispensaries, and to employees and board members of the nonprofits.

The legislation would authorize two nonprofit providers, overseen by the state Department of Public Safety, to grow and dispense medical marijuana for up to 500 patients in two locations in Vermont — one in the northern half of the state, one in the south. That limit was written into the bill to make it more "sellable" to holdouts, White says.

Under the bill, each dispensary could cultivate and possess up to 55 immature plants, 35 mature plants and 80 ounces of usable marijuana at any one time. Prices would be set by the nonprofits, but White guesses medical pot would sell for around $200 an ounce — half the street value — and a sliding scale would compensate for a patient's ability to pay.

The dispensing would be done by appointment only — no walk-ins — and the nonprofits would be subject to yearly financial audits by the state.

The Vermont dispensaries are modeled on those in San Francisco and New Mexico, White says, which have faced relatively fewer complications than what she calls the "mess" plaguing dispensaries in southern California.

"It's not going to have Hell's Angels guys racing around shooting up dispensaries and stuff," White says, "which is what some people are trying to portray."

White wasn't sure what House committee would take the up bill — or whether House leadership would fast-track the legislation.

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