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Vermont governor signs bill allowing medical-marijuana dispensaries

Daily Dose 2011-06-06 0 comments

By W. Zachary Malinowski |  Published in The Providence Journal

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signs medical cannabis dispensary bill into law.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law on Thursday that allows the establishment of up to four dispensaries to sell marijuana and marijuana-related products to patients registered in the state’s medical-marijuana program.

Vermont joins Maine and Rhode Island as the only New England states that have approved legislation to set up dispensaries to sell marijuana legally.

But the way the three states are moving forward is very different. In Rhode Island, Governor Chafee has refused to issue licenses to three dispensaries in Providence, Warwick and Portsmouth that the Health Department selected in April.

He supports the medical-marijuana program, but he’s wary of a threat from Peter F. Neronha, the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, who delivered him a letter, saying that anyone affiliated with the three centers could be prosecuted on federal drug-trafficking charges.

The U.S. Attorneys in Maine and Vermont issued similar threats, but at least two dispensaries have opened in Maine and Vermont plans to have its centers open for business within a year.

Maine plans on eventually having eight dispensaries.

Bianca Slota, spokeswoman for Shumlin, said the governor does not minimize the threat from Tristram J. Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont, but he still feels that patients need safe places to buy marijuana to cope with medical ailments.

“Obviously, it gives us something to think about,” she said. “We are not brushing [Coffin’s letter] aside, but it’s going to be a year before the dispensaries open. We will have to see what happens at the federal level.”

Shumlin signed the legislation into law at the same time U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Providence touring the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence. Afterward, he met with the news media for about 15 minutes and was bombarded with questions about the Justice Department’s policy on marijuana dispensaries.

Holder deftly sidestepped many of the questions and refused to issue any threats similar to those made by Neronha, Coffin or Thomas E. Delahanty II, the U.S. Attorney for Maine. Instead, he said he wants to work closely with governors from the states that have allowed, or are about to establish dispensaries, to make sure they reach a satisfactory resolution. He said he hopes to reach “clarification” on the issue, “sooner rather than later.”

Holder’s remarks were his first public comments on marijuana dispensaries since federal prosecutors issued threatening letters in the New England states and other jurisdictions across the nation. In Washington state and Montana, federal authorities raided several dispensaries that were not sanctioned by their respective states.

Nationwide, 15 states and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of marijuana, with Rhode Island, Maine and Vermont among 8 that have laws permitting the establishment of dispensaries.

In Rhode Island and Maine, the medical-marijuana and dispensary programs are overseen by the state Health Department. That is not the case in Vermont.

There, the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state police, fire safety and other law enforcement-related agencies, is in charge of the medical-marijuana program. It will be responsible for oversight of the application process and background checks of those interested in opening dispensaries.

The bill signed into law on Thursday allows dispensaries to grow and possess up to 28 mature marijuana plants, 98 immature marijuana plants and 28 ounces of usable marijuana. If a dispensary has more than 14 registered patients, the dispensary may grow or possess two mature plants, seven immature plants and two ounces of marijuana for every registered patient.

In Rhode Island, the dispensaries can grow 12 mature plants for each registered patient. That means a facility with 500 patients could grow 6,000 marijuana plants. As of Friday, the state had 3,580 patients in its growing medical-marijuana program.

Vermont has just 351 licensed patients, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

Figures from Maine were not available.