The Human Services Committee passed the bill, S.16, out with 10 votes in favor and one member absent.
Like the version of the bill that passed the Senate in February, the latest draft adds three medical conditions to the list of diagnoses that qualify for the medical marijuana registry: Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.The House changed the bill to require that PTSD patients on the registry be in ongoing care of a mental health professional.
Many expect the addition of more qualifying diagnoses will increase the number of people registered to access marijuana to relieve their symptoms.
However, the House changed a provision in the Senate bill that would have created four new licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries — a policy change aimed at trying to ensure that dispensaries are distributed throughout the state.
Currently, the state has four medical marijuana dispensary licenses. Patients, particularly those living in Bennington and the Northeast Kingdom, have reported they face lengthy trips to get to the nearest dispensary.
The House version of the legislation would not increase the number of dispensaries but would allow each of them to open two additional retail locations — for a total of up to three apiece.
The bill makes a number of other changes, including allowing patients to purchase up to 2 ounces of marijuana while they are growing marijuana at home for medical use. Under current law, patients who decide to grow their own marijuana cannot also buy it.
Dispensaries, which now are required to operate as nonprofits, will be allowed to reorganize as for-profit entities.
Rep. Sandy Haas, P-Rochester, vice chair of the committee, said the panel took in a wide range of perspectives when drafting its version of the bill.
“We tried to come up with something that served Vermont’s patients without causing worry,” Haas said.
Committee Chair Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, said the way the state has implemented the program, lodging it within the Department of Public Safety, and the careful expansion of the program over several years has earned support from many across the political spectrum.
“Marijuana for symptom relief has enjoyed pretty widespread acceptance,” she said.
The latest draft of the bill drew mixed reactions from advocates working on the issue.
Shayne Lynn, who has two dispensary licenses, is supportive of the bill the House committee passed. Lynn runs one dispensary in Burlington and another in Brattleboro.
He said he is optimistic that adding new qualifying medical conditions and making other changes will expand the registry. He believes the changes in the legislation would help drive down the cost of marijuana for patients, which currently is high compared with other states.
Lynn supports the committee’s decision not to expand the number of licenses because, he said, the medical marijuana market in Vermont is quite limited. Fewer than 4,000 people are registered, he said.
“That’s a really small marketplace for four businesses to try to make a go at it,” Lynn said.
However, others are disappointed by the decision not to create new dispensary licenses.
Bernie Barriere, a North Bennington resident interested in opening a dispensary, has encouraged lawmakers to change the law. He said the lack of more licenses drives the cost of medical marijuana up.
“There’s a monopoly in this state,” he said.
He said he’s frustrated but plans to continue to push for a change in the law.
The bill is slated to come up for a vote on the House floor early next week. If it wins approval, the differences between the House and Senate versions will likely be ironed out in a conference committee.