Windham County senator: Expand medical marijuana


BRATTLEBORO -- With Vermont's fourth medical-marijuana dispensary opening in her district, state Sen. Jeanette White remains enthusiastic about the state's highly regulated pot program.

In fact, the Putney-based Democrat, who represents most of Windham County, is pushing for expansion of the program via a bill -- S.247 -- that she introduced in January.

White said state officials have called the initiative "probably the most-successful program in the states," and she offers similar praise.

"It is very strictly run and has great cooperation between the Department (of Public Safety), the patients and the dispensaries where they all respect each other and want the best for the patient," White said.

"We have not seen the problems that states with looser programs have seen," she added. "My feeling is that this is due to a well-thought-out approach and the great cooperation of the department."

Medical marijuana was legalized by the Vermont Legislature in 2004. In 2011, lawmakers approved the concept of state-regulated marijuana dispensaries.

The first three dispensaries were located in Burlington, Brandon and Montpelier. State and Brattleboro officials recently approved Vermont's latest dispensary for operation at 1222 Putney Road, in a building in front of the former Steak Out restaurant.

The facility, called Southern Vermont Wellness, opened Tuesday.

White's bill would allow for two additional medical-marijuana dispensaries in Vermont. It also would "remove the cap of 1,000 (residents) that can be registered at the dispensaries," she said.

"We now have a little over 1000 people on the registry, and we want to make sure that they can all buy through a dispensary rather than grow at home or buy on the illegal market," White said.

According to a recent report from the state, 642 of Vermont's registered medical-marijuana patients receive the drug through dispensaries. The remainder reportedly grow their own.

Other expansions and changes in White's bill include allowing dispensaries to deliver directly to homebound patients.

"Currently, dispensaries are allowed to transport from dispensary to dispensary under very strict guidelines," White said. "The ability to deliver to homebound patients would be done under the same guidelines."

She added that "these are all suggestions that have come from the Department of Public Safety."

White said the Senate Government Operations Committee, which she chairs, has approved the bill. On Thursday, the legislation was referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In other legislative news related to Windham County and its lawmakers:

-- Rep. Mike Hebert on Tuesday testified on behalf of a bill that would extend an education-tax break that benefits Vernon residents.

The Vernon-based Republican introduced H.835 to assist in the town's transition as the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant closes by year's end.

Because Vermont Yankee pays a state electric-generating tax, and because the town hosts the plant, Vernon property owners currently get a 25-percent reduction in the statewide education property tax rate.

Hebert's bill would keep that credit going even after Yankee ceases producing power. He proposes maintaining the 75 percent tax rate for a decade, with a gradual phase-out period after that.

All told, "it's a little over $1 million tax break for Vernon," Hebert said. "That's why it's so important to get this done."

Hebert testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, which is considering the bill. Also testifying via conference call were Vernon Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell and Jim Kane, business administrator for Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

O'Donnell said the tax break dates to the late 1990s; originally, Vernon property owners paid only 50 percent of the statewide tax rate.

"It is a unique situation," O'Donnell said. "It's not just that we have a business in our town that's closing. We have a very controversial business that pumps millions of dollars into the state of Vermont."

Vernon must adjust to an anticipated loss of tax revenue from Yankee, O'Donnell said, but the town's residents cannot afford a big, sudden financial hit.

"Basically, the reason why we're asking for it is, we need some time," she said.

-- State officials still have time to figure out how to pay for Vermont's universal, publicly funded health-care system. But Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith said he has sponsored a bill, S.252, that seeks to address that financial need.

Provisions now before the Senate Finance Committee exclude retirees who are on Medicare as well as federal employees, federal retirees and military personnel from the state's Green Mountain Care coverage, Galbraith said.

"Medicare recipients paid a payroll tax all through their working lives and have, in effect, already paid for their Medicare when they retire," the senator said. "It would be unfair to ask them to pay for Green Mountain Care coverage that they don't need. However, GMC can serve as a secondary payer, covering the services that are now provided through Medicare Parts B and D and by Medigap policies. Under our amendment to S.252, seniors could opt into GMC by paying a premium to be determined by the Green Mountain Care Board."

"I want to assure seniors that we will not tamper with their Medicare coverage," he added. "If they want to keep it as it is, they can. But we hope to give them the chance to buy into additional coverage if they so choose."

-- White's committee has tackled another medical matter by approving a bill calling for creation of a new kind of dentistry provider -- a dental practitioner.

Licensure would require a dental hygienist to complete a one-year course that includes 500 clinical hours, she said. Another 400 hours of clinical experience -- under supervision of a dentist -- would follow.

Dental practitioners "would not be able to practice on their own -- only with a collaborating dentist who would provide supervision and write a contract that includes place of practice, population to be served, etc.," White said.

She added that the program, which aims to increase the availability of dental service in Vermont, works in 90 countries and two other states. Another eight states are considering similar legislation.

-- The House Transportation Committee is considering "the big transportation bill," said Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro.

Burke, who sits on that committee, said the bill contains all transportation spending for fiscal year 2015. Also included is a recommendation to update Vermont's design standards for transportation infrastructure.

"In 1997, Vermont became the first state to implement its own design standards. This came about as an effort to preserve the character of historic downtowns," Burke said. "The new legislation calls for the establishment of a multidisciplinary stakeholders group with representatives of public- and private-sector entities."

That group will review the state's current standards and recommend changes by March 15, 2015.

-- The House Human Services Committee is looking at ways to ease the transition for those who gain employment while receiving public assistance.

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, a Putney Democrat who sits on the committee, said a single mother will lose most of her public benefits even if she lands only a minimum-wage job, which pays $8.13 hourly in Vermont.

"This is not enough to lift (a family) out of the cycle of poverty, when even a small car repair can push them off the tracks and back onto public assistance," Mrowicki said. "House Human Services Committee is working on a bill to extend those benefits and smooth out the cliffs until they get on more-solid financial footing and, eventually, see the fruits of their work and lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty."

-- Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, noted that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) testified Thursday before a joint meeting of the state Senate and House Education Committees.

Stuart, who serves on the House Education Committee, said Sanders started his presentation by focusing on poverty.

"This is a topic I addressed last year on the House floor by presenting a resolution that declared May 1, 2013 as Poverty Awareness Day in Vermont until 2015," Stuart said.

"The resolution's purpose was to encourage all Vermonters to join forces and work together to solve the problems caused by poverty," she said. "From our state's terrible childhood-poverty rate, which increased by 50 percent over the past 10 years, to the number of Vermont seniors -- 11 percent -- who currently live in poverty, I believe as a state we must do better."

Stuart added that "those of us in the House continually strive to improve Vermonters' quality of life. And some of us keep poverty and its effects at the forefront of our minds as we work. Members of the House Education Committee hear on an almost daily basis about how poverty and the social ills associated with it diminish our children's quality of life and chances for a bright future."

Mike Faher is the political beat writer at the Reformer. He can be reached at or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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