ADDISON COUNTY — An Addison County lawmaker is pushing for legislation that would make it easier for approved Vermont users of medical marijuana to obtain the drug. That effort comes as the Obama administration earlier this week directed federal prosecutors not to pursue cases against drug users complying with state medical marijuana laws.
That’s good news for the 173 Vermonters legally registered to use medicinal marijuana. Lawmakers in Vermont legalized the controlled use of the substance in 2004, and now the state is one of 14 states in the country where patients with certain illnesses may use marijuana for palliative purposes.
However, even with the state law, users and Vermont law enforcement officials have always dealt with some confusion when it came to federal prosecution.
But the fear of federal prosecution, now a moot point, wasn’t the only concern facing patients approved to use medical marijuana. As Rep. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, points out, there’s no easy way for patients to obtain a safe supply of the drug. Under the state’s medical marijuana laws, patients are now required to grow the drug themselves, and are allowed to cultivate a certain number of plants.
“Here we have a drug that’s essentially prescribed and authorized by a medical professional, and authorized by the state, but we haven’t completed the loop,” Bray said. “We haven’t made it possible for someone to go out and buy this medicine that they need.”
So Bray is pushing a new bill, which will head to the House Judiciary Committee this winter, that would allow pharmacies in Vermont to dispense medical marijuana.
He began working on the legislation after a constituent, New Haven’s David Millson, came to Bray with concerns about the law. Millson is one of the 173 people on the state’s medical marijuana registry. He’s been battling multiple sclerosis for 25 years. Even before 2004, he began using marijuana after reading about its palliative properties for people battling debilitating illnesses.
“I was a criminal for a while,” he said.
For Millson, Bray explained, “gardening is just not really a possibility.” That’s the case for some other approved users, many of whom are suffering from chronic and debilitating illnesses.
“I’m handicapped,” Millson said. “Now you tell me I can become a farmer?”
So instead of growing their own drugs, Bray and Millson said that some medical marijuana users are purchasing the drug from illegal dealers. First and foremost, Bray said, that means patients are putting their safety at risk, and can’t necessarily know how potent or pure the drug they’re purchasing really is.
“I don’t like to see the state, however unintentionally, driving people into the black market,” Bray said.
Millson said he appreciates the immunity from state and now federal prosecution, but still runs into roadblocks. That immunity doesn’t extend to Millson’s supplier, after all. The New Haven man is at the mercy of the market, and prices for marijuana can jump up and down. Plus, Millson said he can’t verify that the marijuana he purchases is unadulterated.
“The bottom line is that, absent a method to get the stuff, it’s almost feel-good legislation,” Millson said.
Bray pointed out that there are already protocols in place for pharmacies to dispense thousands of controlled substances, including many powerful painkillers and drugs.
“I don’t see why a pharmacy couldn’t handle this like any other controlled substance,” Bray said.
According to some pharmacists, though, it may not be that simple. Pharmacist Tom McDonald at the Marble Works Pharmacy in Middlebury said that dispensing marijuana could get tricky for pharmacies, which are governed by both federal and state regulations.
Most of the time, there aren’t any discrepancies between federal and state statutes. Marijuana could pose some problems, though, because of Drug Enforcement Administration classifications of controlled substances.
Marijuana, under DEA regulations, is classified as a “Schedule I” drug. In the case of Marble Works Pharmacy, the Middlebury pharmacy is only permitted by federal law to dispense drugs from Schedule II to Schedule VI.
In order to dispense a Schedule I drug, a pharmacy or dispensary needs to get special permission, McDonald explained.
“If a pharmacy wasn’t putting their federal drug license at risk, you might find a pharmacy willing to dispense it,” he said.
But McDonald thought it was more likely to see specialized dispensaries fill that role. That’s the case currently in California, where hundreds of dispensaries have cropped up to distribute the drug.
The pharmacist also pointed out that the supply chain is another unknown that would need to be ironed out in order for Bray’s proposed legislation to work. Bray said that, so far, he sees two choices for supplying pharmacies with medical grade marijuana for approved patients: Dispensaries could either distribute drugs confiscated by law enforcement officers, or sell marijuana specially grown by an approved, regulated grower.
The logistics of pharmaceutical laws aside, Bray’s legislation also faces an uphill hike to gain attention in a legislative session in which the House Judiciary Committee, which would consider Bray’s bill, will already have a full docket.
“We all know our dance card is pretty full already,” said Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, who said the Legislature will likely face a shortened session this winter.
Plus, the Judiciary Committee will likely take up the question of a state judiciary restructuring, a massive project, and could be tasked with reworking drunk-driving laws.
“There are number of other things that have already been put on the schedule,” Jewett said. “I can never predict what comes up.”
Still, Bray said he sees enhancing medical marijuana legislation as an ethical issue.
“It’s a small thing, in the overall landscape of what state government does,” Bray said. “But for the people who have these conditions, it’s a major thing. It’s part of what helps them feel better and improves their quality of life.”