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When Vermont's General Fund Needed More Money, Lawmakers Raided The Medical Marijuana Program

Marijuana clones grow behind glass in Milton, Vt., at the headquarters of Champlain Valley Dispensary/Southern Vermont Wellness, run by Shayne Lynn.
Emily Corwin
VPR File
Marijuana clones grow at Champlain Valley Dispensary/Southern Vermont Wellness in Milton. Dispensary licensing fees and medical marijuana patient registration fees in Vermont go to a special fund, but $300,000 was moved from that fund to the general fund.

Right now, the Vermont government is running — in small part — on medical marijuana patients' registration fees. This fact has some medical marijuana patients up in arms.

When state lawmakers first created the medical marijuana program in 2003, supporters promised lawmakers that no taxpayer dollars would be spent on the program.

"The patients would be paying for their services and the products," recalls Fran Janik, a patient and activist.

Janik and all 5,300 of the state’s registered medical marijuana patients pay a $50 registration fee every year to legally obtain and use medical marijuana. That money goes straight into a medical marijuana registry special fund overseen by the Department of Public Safety. In addition, each of five dispensaries contribute $25,000 in annual licensing fees to the fund.

By July 2017, the fund had accrued nearly $500,000 — more than it costs to run the program. Then, lawmakers moved $300,000 from the medical marijuana registry fund to the state’s general fund.

That month a revenue forecast predicted tax revenues would come in short by about $30 million.

"We needed to raise almost $30 million; that is not a small chunk of change," says Adam Greshin, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Finance and Management.

Greshin's goal was to make up the shortfall without affecting services Vermonters rely on. The Department of Public Safety proposed a one-time sweep of the medical marijuana registry fund, in addition to other available funding sources.

"They’ve been carrying a balance for a number of years, which we had noticed," Greshin says of the medical marijuana registry fund, "so that’s why we thought it was a good idea to revert that money back to the general fund."

But Janik, the activist, says this isn't fair.

"To have that much funding disappear, be taken almost as if it was tax dollars — I see that as simply wrong," he says.

Janik says this was never taxpayers’ money to begin with, and it shouldn’t be spent on anyone but medical marijuana patients and the program they rely on. He adds that medical marijuana patients are often low-income, they can spend hundreds of dollars a month on their medicine and they cannot get reimbursements from health insurance.

But Greshin says the government has done nothing wrong.

"We’re not taking this fund and buying luxury items for certain Vermonters," he says. "It’s helping to run government which is exactly what happened in this case."

Patients say they fear this kind of raid will become routine. But Greshin says now that the surplus is gone, he doesn’t think it’ll happen again.

Emily Corwin reported investigative stories for VPR until August 2020. In 2019, Emily was part of a two-newsroom team which revealed that patterns of inadequate care at Vermont's eldercare facilities had led to indignities, injuries, and deaths. The consequent series, "Worse for Care," won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting, and placed second for a 2019 IRE Award. Her work editing VPR's podcast JOLTED, about an averted school shooting, and reporting NHPR's podcast Supervision, about one man's transition home from prison, made her a finalist for a Livingston Award in 2019 and 2020. Emily was also a regular reporter and producer on Brave Little State, helping the podcast earn a National Edward R. Murrow Award for its work in 2020. When she's not working, she enjoys cross country skiing and biking.
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