State lawmakers are expected to consider allowing a retail cannabis market during the upcoming legislative session.
Meanwhile, Vermont’s medical marijuana industry has been quietly growing since 2013 when the first dispensary opened to serve seriously ill patients.
Today, registered dispensaries operate in: Bennington, Brattleboro, Middlebury, Montpelier, Brandon, Burlington and South Burlington.
Lindsey Wells is Vermont's Marijuana Program Administrator. She says together, those dispensaries produce more than 1,700 pounds of dried marijuana a year and serve more than 5,700 people.
Grassroots Vermont, a dispensary and growing facility in Brandon, hopes to double its output in the coming year. But driving by, the tidy 7,000 square foot facility is easy to miss.
The tan and green building looks like it could be anything, and there's no sign out front.
“Yes, we have a very unassuming steel building,” said Spencer Bell, director of cultivation at Grassroots Vermont. “You couldn't really tell what it is from outside. And then inside we've built all of these interior rooms that have all of our equipment in them all our plants in them all of our environmental controls.”
In a nursery where baby pot plants get their start, long wide shelves hold greenery in lots of different stages, including what Bell calls clones. Those are small clippings from more mature "mother plants" that he says they will either root and grow to maturity or sell to clients registered in the program.
“So at any given time in this room there could be up to about almost 300 plants depending on what cycles are going on,” said Bell, adding, “this room was all full yesterday, completely full, you couldn't even walk in the door.”
The previous day, employees culled, repotted and moved more mature plants to their next stage, which occurs in a different set of rooms, he said.
Before Bell walked into one of those, he grabbed a pair of dark, protective glasses.
“This is one of our flowering rooms and one of the biggest differences is the lighting," he said." You know we have this much stronger yellow light there called high pressure sodium lights.”
The plants will get about eight to nine weeks in this room, filling out and flowering as they soak in the brilliant yellow glare.
They’ll also undergo a purification process, Bell said.
“For about the last 16 to 18 days we’ll just run plain reverse osmosis water through the plants. And what that does is it clears out any excess nutrients, anything that's left in the soil and in the plant. It really gives it a clean product at the end,” Bell said.
When all that’s finished the plants will be cut and taken to a drying room where they will cure upside down for two to three weeks.
Altogether, the entire process takes about four months - even longer if they start from seeds instead of small clones.
Once the buds are cured, David Kenney gets involved. He oversees Grassroot Vermont's packaging department, which is located in a small room at the other end of building.
Kenney said they sell 12 different strains of marijuana which all have their own flavor, fragrance and potency.
Kenney said hand trimming each flower enables staff to look at every bud that goes out, “so they can be checked for quality and make sure there's nothing there that shouldn't be there.”
Inventory at the Brandon dispensary is tightly controlled. There are locks, cameras and other security features throughout the building.
To buy from a registered dispensary in Vermont, a patient must have a qualifying condition like AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, cancer or another debilitating condition.
Patients also have to fill out a 12-page application with the state, have a medical provider certify that they qualify and pay a $50 administrative fee.
Under Vermont law, patients approved for the program can purchase up to 56 grams – or two ounces - of dried marijuana a month. Each dispensary sets its own prices and they’re required to provide a sliding scale based on people’s ability to pay.
According to Lindsey Wells at the state’s marijuana registry, most of the dispensaries charge around $350 per ounce.
Because marijuana is illegal under federal law, insurance won’t cover it, so patients pay out of pocket.
Rob Riggen, director of patient services at Grassroots Vermont, says many clients don’t want to smoke marijuana, so the company produces a variety of edible products made with cannabis-infused coconut oil, including cookies, chocolate peanut butter cups and savory goldfish crackers.
“And being that the crackers are small it allows you to take very small doses which is something that we always encourage people to start with,” Riggen said.
Grassroots Vermont’s dispensary in Brandon currently serves more than 500 clients, and manager Christopher Walsh says that number should increase significantly this year.
“The grow rooms have already doubled in size,” since they opened in 2013, he said. “And we're about to start a renovation in two weeks that will double what was already doubled.”
Walsh said that expansion will allow the company to provide marijuana for a second dispensary, in Williston, they hope the state will approve later this year.