David Millson lifts a gold-colored metal pipe to his lips and inhales deeply. He exhales a cloud of pungent marijuana smoke into his living room, takes another drag and then relaxes into a lounge chair.
The 69-year-old retiree from New Haven repeats this regimen several times a day to alleviate the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, the degenerative disease he has battled for more than 20 years. Marijuana doesn’t do much for the pain, but it helps Millson cope with the depression he says comes with “slowly losing your ability to do stuff.”
“It’s an attitude enhancer,” Millson says. “If you’re happier, then you can buck up and fight the pain.”
Millson is one of 182 patients on Vermont’s medical marijuana registry, which allows him to legally grow marijuana plants or have a caregiver grow them for him.
But Millson buys pot illicitly from a friend for $200 to $300 an ounce.
“I’m 69 years old,” says Millson. “I’m not about to start researching hydroponics or specific fertilizers. That’s a job for somebody who knows what they’re doing, not a patient who needs the stuff.”
Millson appears quite healthy, moving easily around his multilevel home, but says he’s in no shape to cultivate a cannabis crop. He argues that anyone sick enough to be on the registry — individuals with HIV, AIDS, cancer, MS and other painful diseases — is usually too ill to play pot farmer.
Several prominent lawmakers agree and have proposed legislation that would establish state-sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries where patients like Millson would easily — and legally — obtain marijuana. At Millson’s urging, Rep. Chris Bray (D-New Haven) will introduce one such bill. Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) is cosponsoring a similar bill.
“I get calls in my office every year from senior citizens who are using marijuana for medicinal purposes, legally,” Shumlin says. “And [they] ask questions like, ‘Can you tell me what a drug dealer looks like?’”
There are several problems with Vermont’s 5-year-old medical marijuana statute, according to supporters of the dispensary bill. One is quality: Unless your thumb is ganja green, the caliber of homegrown cannabis will be far inferior to what an experienced grower could produce. Another is access: Vermont’s wink-and-nudge medical marijuana law is silent on where to obtain seeds and cuttings, or how to obtain pot if you can’t grow it.
Another problem is supply. Millson says his grower sometimes runs out, usually at the end of summer, before the harvest.
Shumlin’s bill, cosponsored by state senators Hinda Miller (D-Chittenden) and Jeanette White (D-Windham), envisions up to five nonprofit “compassion centers” around Vermont distributing medical marijuana. The state would license grow operations in secret locations, where up to 98 plants, or 28 ounces of usable marijuana, could be cultivated. All marijuana distributed through the centers would require labels displaying its THC content. The state would solicit applications for the operation of dispensaries and would require they be protected by security alarm systems.
Shumlin claims the bill wouldn’t cost the state a dime: Dispensaries would be run by private nonprofits that fund their operations through marijuana sales.
One place medical pot won’t be doled out: pharmacies. The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, which means health care professionals can’t legally prescribe it. What doctors do now is file a form with the state that allows patients with chronic diseases to possess up to 2 ounces.
Nobody knows how many medical marijuana users, like Millson, are buying black-market bud rather than growing it. The Vermont Criminal Information Center, the state agency that administers the registry, doesn’t track the number of patients who grow their own. Whatever the number, Bray says it’s too many.
“This is really a safe-access issue, and more about compassion and fairness than anything to do with drug policy,” Bray says. “No one would ever say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, you have to grow your own foxglove.’”
Fifteen states have medical marijuana laws on the books, but only a handful have state-sanctioned dispensaries. That could change as a result of a recent announcement from the Obama administration: Federal law enforcement will no longer prosecute medical marijuana users in states where it is legal. Shumlin describes that reversal as a game-changer.
Shumlin believes he has the votes in the Senate to pass the marijuana dispensary bill this year, but adds he doesn’t know what the House or Gov. James Douglas would do with it. In 2004, Douglas allowed the bill legalizing medical marijuana to become law without his signature.
The other wild card, Shumlin says, is state law enforcement. Lobbyist Ed Miller, who represents the Vermont Police Association, suggests that cops might get on board. The bills solve “one of the problems law enforcement has always had with the [medical marijuana] concept,” Miller says. “Unless you grow it yourself, you can’t obtain it legally.”
Whatever the solution, David Millson says the state owes sick patients a safe and legal place to obtain marijuana. “Frankly, I don’t care where I get it,” Millson says. “I’m just looking for them to fulfill what they said we can do.”
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