(This story is by Matt Hongoltz-Hetling of the Valley News, in which it first appeared July 29, 2017.)
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — In the wake of a statewide expansion of medical marijuana dispensaries, at least two companies have expressed interest in opening a dispensary in Hartford, and local officials say they have no objection.
“I’m personally not against having a dispensary in our community,” said Rebecca White, a member of the Hartford Selectboard, which was told during a July 18 meeting that there had been inquiries about siting a dispensary in the town.
“I think that it would be a really good opportunity, now that we know so early, to open up that community discussion,” she said, “because I think that once people meet people who are actively seeking medical marijuana, I think that myth of the lowlife, the lazy person not contributing to the community, will go away.”
On June 8, Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed into law Act 65, which allowed each of the state’s four existing medical marijuana dispensaries — located in Montpelier, Brattleboro, Brandon and Burlington — to open a satellite location.
The law also provides for the state to issue a fifth license.
Lindsey Wells, who oversees the state medical marijuana registry for the Vermont Department of Public Safety, said Hartford is the subject of two different applications. One is for a satellite of an existing dispensary, which has been reviewed by department staff, and is being discussed for possible approval.
“We received the proposal and we’re working on any additional information that we may need for that site,” Wells said. “We’ve reviewed it. There’s a few other questions that we have sent to them, items that we want them to address prior to us approving the site.”
The state also has received satellite applications for Middlebury, South Burlington and Williston.
The second application is from one of at least five groups that are competing for the additional dispensary license. Those applications, Wells said, will be reviewed by a Legislature-approved panel that will make recommendations to the Public Safety Department about how to proceed.
“We have to convene the panel within 30 days, and then the panel has 10 business days to issue a decision to the department,” she said.
Though the department can disagree with the panel, she said, that has not happened historically.
Because Vermont law explicitly states that dispensary applications are confidential, state officials wouldn’t release the names of the companies seeking to site medical marijuana dispensaries in Hartford. But Town Manager Leo Pullar said the town received an inquiry from Vermont Patients Alliance, a dispensary in Montpelier.
The alliance became the first dispensary in the state in June 2013. The dispensaries offer a variety of marijuana strains for symptom relief for registered patients who suffer from a variety of ailments, such as multiple sclerosis, seizures and nausea, and chronic or severe pain, such as that associated with cancer or cancer treatment.
Patients who don’t want to light up and risk the negative health effects associated with smoking can purchase smokeless options such as edibles, teas, salves and transdermal patches.
Messages for Monique McHenry, executive director of Vermont Patients Alliance, were not returned. Staff who answered the phone at the alliance Friday said no one was available to answer questions.
Pullar said that, at McHenry’s request, he directed town planning staff to write a letter stating the town had no local ordinances that would prohibit a dispensary. Wells said she had received such a letter from Hartford included in one company’s application package for a satellite.
Pullar said that, at roughly the same time he fielded McHenry’s call, he also received a call from Heirloom Furniture Hospital and Antique Center asking the same question — whether local ordinances would prohibit a dispensary.
Richard Brown, who has owned the antiques center for 26 years, said he’s in negotiations with a medical marijuana dispensary for use of the building, which he currently shares with Mainly Vintage on Route 5, or North Main Street, above downtown White River Junction.
Brown declined to name the specific company but said his business’s continued presence in that location might be affected by the outcome of those negotiations.
The building is in a commercial zone, and so would be suitable for a business like the dispensary, Pullar said.
Although the town is in the process of considering ordinances that would restrict the marketing of flavored tobacco to children, he said, the Selectboard recently has passed on the idea of targeting medical marijuana, or marijuana paraphernalia.
“In the end, it is a legal, licensed and regulated business in the state of Vermont,” Pullar said. He said such dispensaries also provide valuable medical services to area residents who currently have to drive elsewhere to get their prescribed marijuana.
Over the past 18 months, as the dispensaries have established themselves, the number of Upper Valley patients they serve has soared, according to county-level statistics on the patients in the state registry published by the Vermont Department of Health.
In February 2016, there were 210 patients in Windsor County and 99 in Orange County.
By last month, the numbers had increased to 358 in Windsor and 178 in Orange, mirroring a statewide increase to 4,438 patients over the same period.
Pullar said Police Chief Phil Kasten has expressed some concerns about the impact the facility could have on community safety.
“He worries like that, and that’s what we pay him for,” Pullar said. “But the regulations and security requirements placed on these facilities are tremendous.”
Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said that before the marijuana dispensary opened near the edge of town, he had all sorts of law enforcement concerns.
“The security, the storage, are we going to have break-ins? Are people going to congregate there? The safety of employees,” he said.
But now he says that, as he learned more about how the businesses are regulated, he realized that most of his initial concerns were “borne out of ignorance.”
“From all accounts, it is a very well-organized, well-run business,” he said. “I cannot think of one call that we’ve gone up there for.”
Wells said the state will make an announcement about new dispensary locations after applications have been approved.