Contradictions raised in medical marijuana debate

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

The contradiction between federal and state marijuana laws was at the core of a Williston Selectboard debate Monday that raised questions about local law enforcement protocols.

Vermont Senate Bill 17, which was enacted into law June 2, 2011, amended existing state marijuana laws to allow up to four registered medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in the state at any one time.

However, federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, thus prohibiting it from being prescribed and dispensed for medical use.

Jeffrey Wallin, director of the Vermont Criminal Information Center, a unit of the Vermont Department of Public Safety, explained to the Selectboard the conflicting levels of jurisdiction over medical marijuana dispensaries.

Wallin, whose unit maintains the state’s Medical Marijuana Registry of patients eligible for cannabis prescriptions, explained the conflicting levels of jurisdiction over medical marijuana dispensaries.

“The feds still view these (dispensaries) as illegal,” Wallin said. “Having said that, what Vermont state statute allows is it provides coverage, assuming that you meet the requirements that as a dispensary you’re following all the rules, and as a patient you’re following all the rules, you are not subject to prosecution under Vermont state law for possession.”

But Wallin added that Vermont law in no way exempts patients or dispensaries from federal law.

“Both patients and the agencies and their individuals that are operating the dispensaries have to sign off that they realize they are in violation of federal law,” Wallin said. “And if the U.S. district attorney decides to come after them, they’re getting no cover from us at all. They’re not getting any legal help. They’re on their own.”

Selectboard member Chris Roy, an attorney at a Burlington-based law firm, agreed that the medical marijuana question presents unique legal challenges.

“I can’t think of another scenario where state law is specifically authorizing conduct that is explicitly forbidden by federal law,” Roy said.

Williston officials have been asked by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to provide a formal town stance on whether they would allow, conditionally allow or prohibit a potential medical marijuana dispensary within the town. Municipalities are permitted under state law to regulate or prohibit dispensaries.

Williston Police Chief Todd Shepard recommended that the town prohibit dispensaries in a Nov. 28 memo to Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire. On Monday, Shepard told the Selectboard that Williston police officers swear to uphold both the Vermont Constitution and the U.S. Constitution, and that allowing a dispensary in Williston could force officers to violate one of those oaths.

“Do we violate our oath (to the U.S. Constitution) as police officers to support our state law, or do we uphold our oath as an officer and support the federal law?” Shepard asked.

Shepard also raised security concerns about a potential dispensary in Williston. He suggested the potential for attempted burglaries of product or money from a dispensary, plus the possibility that drug dealers could zero in on dispensary customers and attempt to sell illegal marijuana to those customers at a cheaper rate.

Selectboard Deputy Chairman Jeff Fehrs acknowledged that he is torn on the medical marijuana question.

“I certainly feel that somebody who’s suffering through a disease like cancer deserves all the help they can get … but there are some real practical liabilities and problems with just saying yes,” Fehrs said.

For Roy, the issue comes down to the fundamental disagreement between federal and state laws.

“At the end of the day, the question for me is am I comfortable having Williston ordinances expressly authorize conduct that we all sit here and know is expressly prohibited under federal law,” Roy said.

Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig wrapped the discussion by encouraging Williston residents to weigh in on the medical marijuana debate by directly contacting Selectboard members or by writing a letter to the Williston Observer. The contact information for all five Selectboard members is listed in the Observer’s Community Forum section.

The next Selectboard meeting will be held Dec. 10 at the Williston Woods Community Center. It will primarily be focused on the town’s fiscal year 2014 budget.