Statehouse Headliners: Senate expands medical marijuana for any condition, VY settlement paves way for approval

By Guy Page

After refusing pleas last week by at least two Vermont doctors’ organizations to listen to physicians about the medically-appropriate uses of marijuana, the Vermont Senate on Friday approved S.216, to allow dispensaries to sell medical marijuana for any “disease, condition, or treatment as determined in writing by a qualifying patient’s health care professional” (p. 334, March 1 Senate Journal).

S.216 also requires the Vermont Department of Agriculture to establish marijuana testing laboratories, a necessary step towards legalizing commercial cultivation and sale of marijuana. The bill does not say how much these laboratories will cost or how they will be paid for.

Vermont legalized medical marijuana in 2004. Supporters said it treated cancer pain. Since then, the list of pot-treatable diseases has expanded dramatically. S.216 removes any limit to the “debilitating conditions” for which marijuana may be prescribed.

S.216 is seen as the latest example of an ongoing expansion of medical marijuana as big business. Vermont already has no restrictions on advertising medical marijuana. Last year Act 65 expanded the number of sales locations and allowed medical marijuana dispensaries to operate as for-profit businesses. Now S.216 would allow marijuana to be dispensed for any “medical” reason. Its lead sponsor is Judiciary Chair Richard Sears (Bennington), the driving force behind full-scale commercial cultivation and sale of marijuana.

Representatives for the Vermont Medical Society and Physicians, Friends and Families for a Better Vermont this week both urged the Senate to hear committee testimony by physicians – to no avail. An amendment by members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee to strike language expanding the conditions and prescribers was rejected on the Senate floor. There were no recorded roll calls. The bill now goes to the Vermont House, which approved a personal possession bill earlier this year but is believed to be less sympathetic to commercial sale. Click here for contact information for all Vermont House members.

This isn’t the first time lawmakers and the drug industry have pushed “pain relief” without adequate input from doctors. The opioid crisis began after federal regulators, Congress and Big Pharma identified pain as a “vital sign” in the late ’90s. The “pain chart” became a required part of assessment and treatment. After a physician was successfully sued for refusing to fill an opiate prescription requested by the patient, resistance to over-prescribing opiates crumbled, resulting in the ongoing and horrific opiate epidemic.

As one Better Vermont member said recently, “When politicians, lobbyists, and an addictive drug industry, all non-physicians, practice medicine through legislation they do harm to an unsuspecting public, especially when physicians’ advice is summarily dismissed.”

After passing S.216, the Senate then suspended its own procedural rules and sent the bill immediately to the House of Representatives, rather than waiting a day, presumably to fast-track movement through that body. Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont urges the House to carefully listen to Vermont physicians about the dangers of commercially-driven over-prescription of an addictive, psychoactive drug, and to reject S.216 for this reason and as a “gateway law” for the Senate’s expressed desire to create a commercial marijuana cultivation and sale industry in Vermont.

Vermont Yankee settlement announced – A March 3 agreement between Vermont Yankee owner Entergy, proposed buyer NorthStar, the State of Vermont and other parties resolves the outstanding issues surrounding the decommissioning of Vermont’s only nuclear power plant.

The agreement addresses concerns about the NorthStar plan’s financial strength and increases the likelihood of the site’s near-term re-development for a tax-paying, jobs-producing high-tech industry. The proposed sale still requires approval by the Vermont Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A detailed explanation of the agreement can be seen here.

Cold weather kills power affordability, reliability – Those three really cold weeks in late December and early January cost New England ratepayers (Vermont included) big – REALLY big. According to a recent report (see p. 26) by grid operators ISO-New England, electricity costs for those three weeks alone were $1.1 billion. That’s compared to $4 billion for the entire year of 2016. Things could have been worse, though – at least New England didn’t experience any rolling blackouts. Experts say another 1-2 days of deep cold weather would have left some New England residents in the dark and – if they heated with furnaces requiring electricity – in the cold, too.

This near-catastrophe was caused by an over-reliance on natural gas as the fuel of choice for electricity generation. There’s a finite amount of natural gas that can be delivered through New England pipelines, and gas dispatchers give the priority to keeping people warm. When there’s not enough gas to turn the power turbines, grid operators turn to oil and coal-fired plants. They would be able to rely more on nuclear power – but alas Vermont Yankee closed in 2014 and its Massachusetts sister, Pilgrim, will close next year, in both cases due mostly to the very low cost of “fracked” natural gas.

In short, New England must rely on expensive, “dirty” oil and coal to keep the lights on during cold snaps. Even so, 19 of 23 ISO-NE scenarios for a cold 2024-25 winter envision “load shedding,” the industry euphemism for rolling blackouts.

Sponsor of ‘homeless bill of rights’ frustrated – The lead sponsor of H.412, the “homeless bill of rights,” expressed frustration that some Vermonters – including local governments and retail business owners – are concerned it would give special powers to homeless people. “They are about the most powerless class of people in our society,” Rep. Tom Stevens (Waterbury) said in a State House conversation last week. “I have to ask, ‘what would Jesus do?”

H.412 affirms for homeless people the same rights of employment, medical care, voting and many other rights enjoyed by non-homeless people, including the right “to use and move freely in public spaces, including public sidewalks, parks, transportation, and buildings, in the same manner as any other person and without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status.” Of concern was language in an early draft that seemed to protect panhandling. H.412 was introduced in mid-February, but a Jan. 30 draft of the bill concerns Karen Horn of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Feb. 27 she told the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee:

We understand now that the committee is re-considering H.412 and will likely include language from Draft 1 (dated January 30, 2018) …….stating, ‘No person shall be subject to civil or criminal sanctions for soliciting, sharing, accepting or offering food, water, money or other donations in public places.’ While sharing, accepting or offering water, money or other donations in public places may be appropriate and hard to regulate, we are most concerned with the inclusion of the word ‘soliciting.’ Both municipalities and the state are working hard to grow the economy and make our downtowns welcoming places for all who want to go there. Downtowns are centers for all kinds of special festivals and activities, as well as locations for retail stores, restaurants, craft brew enterprises and much more. Soliciting outside those businesses that have cast their fate with the success of downtowns is frequently a deterrent to people entering those businesses and spending the money that keeps them afloat, and soliciting at busy intersections is a public safety risk to both pedestrians and drivers. It is the act of soliciting, the lack of balance between soliciting and economic growth, and not the status of the person’s housing that is problematic for municipalities.

H.412 has not been voted out of committee and into to the full House.

House OKs conditions-of-release changes, bail reform, marijuana saliva testing before Town Meeting Week; Senate approves firearms, campaign contribution bills.

In its annual hurry to approve bills before going home for Town Meeting Week next week, the House of Representatives last week passed the following legislation:

H.711 3/2/2018 An act relating to employment protections for crime victims
H.728 3/2/2018 An act relating to bail reform
H.675 3/2/2018 An act relating to conditions of release prior to trial
H.237 3/2/2018 An act relating to saliva testing
H.901 3/2/2018 An act relating to health information technology and health information exchange
H.614 3/1/2018 An act relating to the sale and use of fireworks
H.731 3/1/2018 An act relating to miscellaneous workers’ compensation and occupational safety amendments
H.727 3/1/2018 An act relating to the admissibility of a child’s hearsay statements in a proceeding before the Human Services Board
H.700 3/1/2018 An act relating to the Open Meeting Law and meeting minutes
H.836 3/1/2018 An act relating to electronic court filings for relief from abuse orders
H.718 2/28/2018 An act relating to creation of the Restorative Justice Study Committee
H.638 2/28/2018 An act relating to increasing the number of examiners on the Board of Bar Examiners from nine to 11 members
H.608 2/28/2018 An act relating to creating an Older Vermonters Act working group
H.199 2/28/2018 An act relating to reinstating legislative members to the Commission on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders
H.895 2/27/2018 An act relating to legislative review of certain report requirements

During the same week, the Senate approved the following bills:

S.216 3/2/2018 An act relating to the administration of Vermont’s Medical Marijuana Registry
S.55 3/2/2018 An act relating to the disposition of unlawful and abandoned firearms
S.120 3/2/2018 An act relating to limiting corporate campaign contributions
S.175 3/1/2018 An act relating to the wholesale importation of prescription drugs into Vermont, bulk purchasing, and the impact of prescription drug costs on health insurance premiums
S.221 3/1/2018 An act relating to establishing extreme risk protection orders
S.282 3/1/2018 An act relating to health care providers participating in Vermont’s Medicaid program
S.165 2/28/2018 An act relating to preemployment health screenings for hospital employees
S.203 2/28/2018 An act relating to systemic improvements of the mental health system
H.150 2/28/2018 An act relating to parole eligibility
S.234 2/27/2018 An act relating to adjudicating all teenagers in the Family Division, except those charged with a serious violent felony
S.70 2/27/2018 An act relating to the nutritional requirements for children’s meals

Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership, Divestment Facts, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and the Church at Prison.

Image courtesy of Bruce Parker/TNR