MONTPELIER -- A House committee, poised to allow PTSD patients to qualify for medical marijuana, reversed itself Friday when the state's top law enforcement official stepped in before the panel voted.
Just before 9:30 a.m., the House Human Services Committee took a straw poll and found seven of 11 members agreed to allow people with post-traumatic stress disorder to obtain medical marijuana.
But before they took a final vote, Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn entered the committee room. Flynn, whose department runs the medical marijuana dispensary program, said he would seek to wash DPS' hands of managing the program if PTSD was included as a qualifying medical condition.
"I think it's outside of the original mission we had, and I think we need to look and see if it can be more appropriately managed somewhere else," Flynn said.
When the House Human Services Committee reconvened an hour later, it voted 11-0 to support a new draft of the bill, S.247, without the PTSD language.
Rep. Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland, voted "reluctantly, yes." Rep. Bill Frank, D-Underhill, voted "double-reluctant, yeah."
The bill instead calls for the Vermont Department of Health to research marijuana treatment for PTSD symptoms.
"I had an opportunity to meet with some of the members of the committee and discuss some of the concerns," Flynn said after the second vote.
"This would essentially change the face of the (medical marijuana) program by having it move from something that was an alternative, or actually, a last resort after other treatments have been administered for symptom relief to making it a primary treatment mechanism and that is not consist with the program that we have in place now," Flynn said.
Legislators made it clear throughout the debate that they view marijuana as a tool for symptom relief only.
The bill now heads to the House floor. The Senate also removed PTSD as a qualifying condition, a provision of the original bill, before passing it, but the House added it back in. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, is the sponsor.
Pro-marijuana lobbyists supported the PTSD language, but not at the expense of the bill. They advocated for the Health Department study.
Among those who changed their vote was Rep. Francis "Topper" McFaun, R-Barre Town.
"My position is if we can help people then we ought to do it," McFaun said originally.
Later, McFaun said he was uncomfortable with his original vote, saying he voted for the PTSD language because he wanted to advance the bill.
"I want the people who are administering this program to feel comfortable with administering it," McFaun said later in explaining his change of heart.
Other committee members advocated for PTSD both times. Rep. Matthew Trieber, D-Bellows Falls, said lawmakers should not stand in the way of making marijuana available if it can help people.
"We should be offering (medical marijuana) to victims of rape and veterans and that's where my vote will be," Trieber said.
Chairwoman Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, did not support PTSD language from the start. She said she is in favor of incremental change and did not want to jeopardize the support of law enforcement.
"Sometimes taking baby steps is the way before you can jump and take a big step, so I would not personally be supportive of adding PTSD," she said. Later in the afternoon she thanked her committee for reconsidering.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, also said she did not support adding PTSD, saying in another state it increased the number of people going to dispensaries by 30 percent.
Rep. Sandy Haas, P-Rochester, said she was uncomfortable voting for a bill that the Department of Public Safety opposed, since it administers the program.
The committee also added an amendment from Trieber that removes a requirement that a patient have had a six-month relationship with a physician for people who are diagnosed with a terminal illness, cancer with distant metastases or AIDS.
They also added a section authorizing dispensaries to acquire, cultivate and sell hemp for symptom relief. The committee learned through testimony that a certain strain of hemp is effective in treating some children who suffer from frequent seizures.