Patients First Inc.— one of two medical marijuana dispensaries approved by the state— will set up shop in Waterbury without having to disclose its location or any other information about its operational plan.
The state recently approved two medical marijuana distribution centers, Patients First and the Champlain Valley Dispensary in Burlington. Information about the two facilities, however, is scant.
That’s because Vermont Department of Public Safety rules allow the state to keep information about the dispensaries confidential.
The Public Records Legislative Study Committee met on Friday to discuss concerns raised by journalists about the rules. Members of the committee agreed that keeping certain information confidential, such as the address of the dispensary, may be necessary for maintaining the privacy and safety of patients. They also recognized, however, that withholding information could mar public perception of the facilities.
News broke in September that the state had approved two medical marijuana dispensaries, one in Burlington and the other in Waterbury. Soon after, Shane Lynn, executive director for the Burlington-based dispensary shared details of his plans with member of press, disclosing, for example, that Champlain Valley Dispensary will open in the Wing Complex on Burlington’s Steele Street and will have the capacity to serve 250 registered patients. Lynn has been a familiar face at legislative hearings on medical marijuana, and he provided testimony at Friday’s committee meeting. Lynn said his board of directors had approved the disclosure of basic information about the retail site to the public but they have not decided whether to reveal the exact address, and they will keep the cultivation site undisclosed due to security concerns.
Patients First Inc. has taken a different route— the Public Safety Department’s initial press release provided the company’s name and it revealed that dispensary would be located in Waterbury, but Patients First itself has disclosed no details about its plans.
Flying under the radar
Several media outlets, including VTDigger, filed public records requests for copies of the applications dispensaries submitted to the state. The requests were rejected by the Department of Public Safety and the Vermont Criminal Information Center (VCIC), an offshoot of the department that is tasked with running the state’s medical marijuana program. The state agencies maintain that they didn’t have to respond to the public records requests under current law.
Tom Kearney, managing editor of the Stowe Reporter and the Waterbury Record, whose request for the Patients First application was also rejected, received email exchanges between the company and the state. But he hit another dead end when he discovered the dispensary will be moving into an established building complex and is not required to obtain a zoning permit, which would have revealed the dispensary site address.
Kearney told lawmakers that the confidentiality requirement went beyond the scope of the dispensary law. “Extending that confidentiality to a corporation is a real stretch,” he said.
Francis Aumand, the director of the Division of Criminal Justice Services at the Department of Public Safety, defended the rules, even though the law doesn’t explicitly mandate that information about dispensaries remain confidential. Part (a) of 4474D of Title 18 addresses patient confidentiality, but makes no mention of dispensaries. Part (b), which establishes when information can be disclosed to law enforcement or other agencies in the event of an investigation or prosecution, makes a reference to dispensaries.
Aumand explained, “Our thought process was … why would you go so far as to limit information to law enforcement yet make it completely public to other individuals, including the media?
Aumand said the application requires complete disclosure of the dispensaries’ security requirements and making the application available to the public could impinge on patient confidentiality and place an “undue burden” on the dispensary. “We are left to draw certain conclusions as a result of not having specific language that identifies the disclosure of [dispensary] applicant information,” Aumand siad.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, disagreed with Aumand’s interpretation. “That is not how our public records law works … it is only when you create a specific exemption that information be withheld,” he said.
New Mexico, which served as a model for the committee when they drafted the dispensary, is the only state that doesn’t allow release of information about the dispensaries.
Sen. Margaret Flory, R-Rutland, a member of the committee, called the disclosure issue a “legislative whoops.” Lawmakers agreed to amend the law, but they said they were concerned about maintaining patient confidentiality, and they did not indicate whether dispensaries would be required to disclose basic information to the public in the next iteration of the statute.
Given that the dispensaries are required to be up and running by mid-March, it’s unlikely that the Legislature will revisit the law in time to have an impact on Patients First Inc. and Champlain Valley Dispensary.