In the past, Leigh Girouard's gardening experience was limited to the basics – tomatoes, zucchini, the occasional onion. Now, however, she is digging into a new project: cannabis.
Girouard is among the first-time marijuana and hemp growers taking advantage of Act 86, Vermont’s recreational pot law.
The law went into effect a year ago this month, making it legal for Vermonters over 21 and without a medical marijuana card to tend to six cannabis plants, four immature and two mature, in their backyards and basements.
While Girouard had previously smoked pot in high school, she served in the Marine Corps and the National Guard as an adult, which, she said, "put the kibosh on that."
Now 60 and retired from the military, Girouard has come back around to cannabis. She started in October, when she got a card to use medical marijuana as a sleep aid.
"I’m just kind of learning about it," she said. "The dispensary people were really pretty helpful."
While she purchased edible products from Champlain Valley Dispensary in South Burlington, Girouard said the cost – about $300 an ounce – drove her to consider her options.
This past winter, she bought her first marijuana plant clones from the dispensary, plus some lights and a tent to grow inside. Following her harvest in the spring, Girouard purchased seeds online for two more marijuana plants as well as hemp plants, which now line a plot in the yard of her Chittenden County home. (Girouard didn't want to disclose a more specific location for fear of her plants being taken).
Cultivating her own cannabis hasn't proven to be much cheaper than buying it at the dispensary, but, it turns out, Girouard loves growing it herself.
"They're amazing plants," she said. Once when she accidentally broke a stalk, she put it back together with duct tape – and it survived.
The duct tape fix was a piece of advice Girouard received from Green State Gardner, a Burlington business that specializes in helping people grow cannabis.
General manager Kelsy Raap said there has been a flood of people, particularly retirement-age women, who have come into the store since Act 86 went into effect.
"Still, to this day, our fastest growing demographic of new cannabis growers is women, 65 to 80," Raap said. "We hear people say, 'I’ve never grown this, I used it in college 30 years ago, I haven't used it since, but it's legal and I garden, so why wouldn’t I try it now?'"
Green State Gardner's twice-monthly free classes for cultivating medicinal plants, which have been offered since Oct. 2016, have anywhere between 10 and 40 attendees, she said.
Those numbers haven't diminished, Raap said. What has changed is the language that Green State Gardner uses around marijuana and hemp. While the store's employees used to encourage customers to become medical marijuana patients – and provided a list of doctors open to cannabis use – Raap said they can now discuss things freely.
"With the advent of legalization last year, we’ve been able to massively revise our messaging to be more clear about how people can grow cannabis, to be more supportive of providing information and education around using cannabis, both hemp and marijuana, for therapeutic purposes," she said. "We were able to really focus on bringing it out from the underground and trying to really dispel any stereotypes or misinformation there was around using, growing, the type of people who opt for cannabis."
Green State Gardener continues to advocate for Vermont to pass a tax-and-regulate law to establish a retail marijuana market. Lawmakers postponed the legislation until the 2020 session, and Act 86 currently does not provide a clear way for customers to acquire plants if they are not medical marijuana patients.
"Our customers are forced into a grey market to get their seeds, to get their clones," Raap said. "It's our customers who are taking the risk."
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan has also lamented this problem.
"The fact that we've told Vermonters that you can legally possess marijuana, but we've remained silent on how they can obtain marijuana, raises real issues and frankly lets the black market flourish," Donovan said. "I've been very outspoken, saying we need a fully regulated system where we tell Vermonters, who are of age, how they can obtain marijuana legally and how they possess it. That's good for public safety, it's good for public health and it’s good for consumers."
Yoga Vermont owner Kathy McNames grows both hemp and marijuana as a medical marijuana caregiver. She's not particularly bothered about the unregulated market when it's already well-established.
"There's a lot of people in Vermont that have been growing forever," McNames said. "There's connections all over the place. There's delivery services, people give out prizes that are edibles or certain bud."
Novelty marijuana seeds, she pointed out, can be sold as long as the retailer explicitly points out they shouldn't be planted.
"The people who have something to share, they just switch their language around it," McNames said. "It would be nice if the laws were a little more friendly towards the average person, but I'm just happy it's even legal in my lifetime."
Henry Epp contributed reporting to this story.