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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

A Bid to Decriminalize an Opiate-Addiction Drug Gets a Boost

Posted By on Tue, Apr 6, 2021 at 5:38 PM

  • Dreamstime | Don Eggert
The Vermont House Human Services Committee has again endorsed a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of the opioid-addiction drug buprenorphine. The committee unanimously approved H. 225 Tuesday afternoon, giving it a path to a vote on the House floor in coming days. It would still need approval by the Senate.

"I think we’ve done a good job on this bill," said Rep. Ann Pugh (D-Burlington) said.  "It will save lives." 

A similar bill stalled in the committee in 2019 over concerns about how much of the drug a person would be able to possess and be exempt from criminal charges. Last year, the committee set that at a two-week therapeutic supply, or no more than 224 milligrams. The bill unanimously passed out of committee just days before the legislature evacuated the Statehouse and the Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency due to the pandemic.

This year, the committee took additional testimony, including from Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, who has declined to prosecute misdemeanor buprenorphine and similar drug possession cases since 2018.

She did so because this class of drugs “literally block the craving for heroin” and are an integral part of medically assisted drug treatment programs, she said. While there was some skepticism about the policy, including from law enforcement, George said in the year after it took effect, overdose deaths in the county dropped by 50 percent.

"This bill is really a modest step toward recognizing the harm that criminalizing substance use has done on individuals who use drugs,” George told lawmakers. “It tells people that we care about them, that we want them to survive.”

“When given the option in the community of possessing heroin or possessing buprenorphine, we want them to — in fact we encourage them to — possess buprenorphine,” George said.

People under age 21 found with less than 224 milligrams of “bupe” would be given a ticket and referred to a drug diversion program. First offenders who fail to complete the program would face a civil fine of $300 and 30-day license suspension. Second and subsequent offenses would lead to $600 fines and up to 90-day license suspensions. 

Before he became consumed by the COVID-19 response, Health Commissioner Mark Levine cautioned lawmakers against the decriminalization effort, arguing that it might make addicts less likely to participate in supervised treatment programs.

Supporters responded that recovery is different for different people, and not everyone has access to drug treatment that works for them.

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Thursday, March 4, 2021

Cannabis Organization Heady Vermont Is on Hiatus

Posted By on Thu, Mar 4, 2021 at 11:00 AM

Heady Vermont sponsored a party in Johnson in 2018 to mark Vermont's legalization of marijuana use. - FILE: SARA TABIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Sara Tabin ©️ Seven Days
  • Heady Vermont sponsored a party in Johnson in 2018 to mark Vermont's legalization of marijuana use.

Heady Vermont, the cannabis industry group that expanded in 2019 into a new 3,000-square-foot headquarters in Burlington, is on an indefinite hiatus, said founder Monica Donovan.

Donovan said that no events or publications are planned, and she doesn't know if she'll continue with Heady. "I’d love to, but won’t know positively for a while," she said by text on Wednesday.

The 5-year-old membership organization published a weekly "News Roll Up" and organized events for businesses and consumers, including an annual trade show at the Champlain Valley Expo. At its peak last year, it had an all-female staff of six. But the pressures of the pandemic shutdowns were too much for Heady, said Kathryn Blume, the former communications director, who left last summer as work dwindled.

“Events were one of our primary income streams, and if you can’t have events, that makes things really hard,” said Blume, who now works in communications for NurseGrown Organics CBD in Underhill. “Also, the fact that it took so long to get the tax-and-regulate bill passed meant that a lot of businesses who would have been business partners for us were on hold as well, and then the financial uncertainty of the pandemic was, I think, a perfect storm.”

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Roughly Two Dozen Vermont Towns Just Say Yes to Marijuana Sales

Posted By on Wed, Mar 3, 2021 at 3:19 PM

Scott Sparks in his Brattleboro store, Vermont Hempicurean - COURTESY OF TRAVIS STOUT
  • Courtesy of Travis Stout
  • Scott Sparks in his Brattleboro store, Vermont Hempicurean
The Evansville Trading Post, a general store in the small town of Brownington,  has adapted over the years to stay afloat. These days, its wares include food, fuel, fishing licenses and furniture.

Thanks to the town's voters, store owners Andrew and Kelly Swett hope to add cannabis to that list — not the CBD that’s already available on the counter, but the THC-containing products that people use to get high.

“Things aren’t going so great in retail,” said Andrew, who was relieved on Wednesday to learn that the town had voted to allow commercial cannabis establishments, a move made possible by a bill passed last year. “It would be helpful.”

About two dozen Vermont towns considered similar measures on Town Meeting Day, and almost all passed them.

Under Vermont's 2020 law, municipalities must opt in to the adult-use marijuana marketplace through a public vote before any sales can occur. The law allows the state’s existing medical marijuana dispensaries to obtain licenses to manufacture and sell cannabis products to the public starting in May 2022. Other outlets granted retail licensees won't be able to sell until October 2022.

The towns that put the measure to a vote Tuesday are widely spread around the state, and included the large — such as Burlington, which approved the measure by a wide margin — and the small. Burke passed the measure by a vote of 133 to 130, according to the town’s treasurer.

Only three municipalities — Newport City, Richmond, and Lyndon — rejected it, according to early counts. Results from Ludlow were not yet available Wednesday.

The measure passed in Burlington doesn’t allow any marijuana sales until October 2022.

Andrew said he’s already working with one CBD supplier with whom he’d like to partner for the marijuana business. He thinks another entrepreneur who was eying Newport City will probably also try to set up shop in Brownington after that city said no to marijuana sales.

“We’re probably not going to be the only one in town,” he said. “I think it would help business in general.”

Only about 10 percent of Vermont municipalities put the matter up for a vote. More should have, said lawyer Tim Fair, who saw the results as representative of the state at large. Fair is a founder of the Burlington law firm Vermont Cannabis Solutions.

“One of the big surprises for me in this process is how the selectboards were adamantly opposed to putting this vote to the people,” Fair said. “We’re a representative democracy. We can’t agree on anything anymore, yet almost 70 percent  of Vermonters agree we want a legal cannabis industry.”

Selectboards weren’t the only ones opposed. Pathologist Catherine Antley campaigned against retail sales in Middlebury, which approved the measure by a wide margin. Antley said the industry cannot be successfully regulated, and that cases involving organized crime quadrupled in Colorado after commercial marijuana was legalized. “How many Vermonters know that there is essentially no profit in the industry without the creation and maintenance of addiction,” Antley wrote in an email, adding that the industry targets young people.
Before stores can sell cannabis, the governor has to appoint a Cannabis Control Board, whose members would be full-time state employees. That process is already behind schedule. The board members’ terms were due to start January 19, but Gov. Phil Scott hasn’t yet named his choices. The law calls for the board to recommend certain fees by April 1, and to begin making rules for cannabis establishments by June 1.

Scott has been forthright with his concerns about legalizing marijuana, saying there is more work to be done in the areas of road safety, racial equity and the prevention of misuse. He allowed the legislature’s tax-and-regulate bill to become law without his signature last fall.

Eli Harrington, a Burlington-area cannabis activist who runs a website called Vermontijuana, noted that the town where the governor lives, Berlin, voted to allow commercial marijuana sales.

“Hopefully it’s a little kick in the ass for this commission to form, because that’s really what is holding things up,” Harrington said.

When things do get under way, Scott Sparks, who owns the Vermont Hempicurean CBD store in Brattleboro, has big expansion plans. Along with opening an adult-use marijuana store, he’d like to create a test kitchen to concoct edible marijuana products, expand his sales of cannabis growing supplies, and create an area for growing plants as a demonstration for visitors. He envisions the latter as a “Ben & Jerry’s-type thing for people who haven’t seen cannabis growing before.”

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Thursday, February 4, 2021

Vermont Nets $1.5 Million in Opioid Settlement With McKinsey

Posted By on Thu, Feb 4, 2021 at 1:51 PM

OxyContin on a pharmacy shelf - DREAMSTIME
  • Dreamstime
  • OxyContin on a pharmacy shelf
Vermont will receive $1.5 million in a multistate deal with the consulting firm McKinsey to settle legal claims over its work with OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma to boost opioid sales.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan announced on Thursday the state's sliver of a reported $573 million settlement with 47 states.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Purdue Pharma to Plead Guilty in Criminal Probe Initiated by Vermont Prosecutors

Posted By on Wed, Oct 21, 2020 at 2:13 PM

Christina Nolan, U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Christina Nolan, U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont
Updated at 8:07 p.m.

Purdue Pharma, the notorious drugmaker accused of fueling the opioid crisis, will plead guilty to two counts of violating federal anti-kickback laws, a major win for Vermont U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan, whose office uncovered the scheme. The company, best known for producing the opioid OxyContin, will also admit to defrauding federal health agencies.

Purdue will pay a criminal penalty of more than $5.5 billion in what the U.S. Department of Justice said Wednesday is the largest such penalty ever levied against a pharmaceutical manufacturer in a criminal case. Purdue will also pay an additional $2.8 billion civil fine, making for an $8.3 billion total settlement.

"The resolution in today’s announcement re-affirms that the Department of Justice will not relent in its multi-pronged efforts to combat the opioids crisis," Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen said during a press conference announcing the deal.

Nolan's office began investigating Purdue in 2018. This past January, she announced a $145 million settlement with electronic medical records company Practice Fusion, which had conspired with Purdue to push pills to patients using an alert system embedded in medical software.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Vermont Lawmakers Send Retail Cannabis Bill to Governor

Posted By on Tue, Sep 22, 2020 at 12:54 PM

  • Luke Eastman
After years of debate, lawmakers on Tuesday gave final approval to a bill that would create a legal retail market for marijuana in Vermont.

The Senate voted 23-6 to accept the report of a legislative committee that hammered out long-standing differences between the House and Senate over the best way to tax and regulate cannabis in the state.

“This has been a long, winding road to get to this point,” Sen. Dick Sears (D- Bennington) told his colleagues before the vote.

Sears said he would be the first to admit “this bill is not perfect,” but he felt it was a good compromise that he hoped Gov. Phil Scott would sign into law.

“I would be surprised if he didn’t, quite frankly,” Sears said. “In many cases, the conference committee kept his positions in mind.”

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Monday, September 21, 2020

Burlington-Area Sex Trafficker Sentenced to 22 Years in Prison

Posted By on Mon, Sep 21, 2020 at 5:35 PM

  • Burlington Police Department
  • Brian Folks
A man convicted last year of using opioids to coerce women into prostitution was sentenced on Monday to more than two decades in federal prison.

A jury previously found Brian Folks, 45, guilty of 13 felonies related to sex and drug rings that federal prosecutors said he operated in the Burlington area between 2012 and 2016.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Vermont Lawmakers Strike a Deal on Retail Pot Bill

Posted By on Wed, Sep 16, 2020 at 10:23 AM

  • Luke Eastman
Lawmakers have struck a deal on the bill that would legalize cannabis sales in Vermont, ending weeks of negotiations and bringing the state closer than ever to setting up a regulated retail market.

House and Senate members of the S.54 conference committee signed off on their compromise proposal late Tuesday after settling two outstanding issues related to local funding and advertising, according to Rep. John Gannon (D-Wilmington).

They agreed to provide towns a share of the state's cannabis licensing fees instead of the tax revenue model preferred by the Senate. In exchange, the House dropped a controversial — and constitutionally dubious — all-out ban on weed advertising. Terms of the deal were first reported in the Bennington Banner.

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Friday, September 11, 2020

Vermont House Votes to Approve Marijuana Expungements by Wide Margin

Posted By on Fri, Sep 11, 2020 at 6:45 PM

  • Luke Eastman
The Vermont House on Friday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would automatically expunge thousands of low-level marijuana convictions and allow people to possess and grow twice as much of the drug without being charged with a crime.

The two cannabis-related measures were included in a miscellaneous judiciary bill that passed the chamber by an overwhelming margin. Final action is expected next week before it then heads to the Senate, where lawmakers passed a similar decriminalization bill in May and have expressed support for the expungement concept.

"We have approximately 10,000 Vermonters who continue to struggle to live, work, find a house, raise their families and be productive members of society with that cloud of a past nonviolent low-level marijuana conviction hanging over their heads," Rep. Tom Burditt (R-Rutland) said prior to Friday's virtual House vote, which was 113 to 10.

The bill is "also a critical component of the movement towards racial justice in cannabis policy," he added, referencing how marijuana charges have disproportionately impacted people of color throughout the United States for decades.

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Friday, September 4, 2020

Lawmakers Nearing Agreement on Retail Cannabis Sales Bill

Posted By on Fri, Sep 4, 2020 at 9:03 PM

Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington)
Lawmakers are nearing a deal on legislation that would set up a retail cannabis marketplace in Vermont, settling a number of core issues on Friday involving road safety, advertising and local control.

Two main points of contention remain between the two chambers.  The House wants towns to get a share of the state's cannabis licensing fees, while the Senate wants municipalities that host cannabis businesses to receive a share of tax revenue — an amount equal to a 2 percent tax. Questions also remain over what land-use exemptions should apply to cannabis cultivators.

"It appears that we are probably extremely close on everything" except those issues, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said on Friday during a meeting between the House and Senate negotiating teams.

While bills have died over less, the conference committee's significant progress Friday suggests that the bill has a good chance of moving during this month's brief budget session.

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