Lawmakers mull secrecy of marijuana dispensary details
By David Taube
STAFF WRITER | October 25,2012
WATERBURY — Legislators next year may consider reworking a law that has left Waterbury without several details about a medical marijuana dispensary proposed in the community.
The state’s Public Records Legislative Study Committee met last week to discuss whether certain details about marijuana dispensaries could be withheld from the public. State officials who administer the medical marijuana program have leaned toward withholding or redacting details or the records themselves.
State officials suggested at the meeting that legislators could re-examine the dispensary legislation, which several lawmakers say contains ambiguities that have allowed state officials to withhold information.
The committee has been working to reduce the number of exemptions to the state’s law on public records. There are nearly 300 exemptions, many because agencies can create administrative rules to make the records private.
“We just didn’t think it through,” Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, said Friday about the dispensary law and the issue of confidentiality. “I’m no longer as annoyed at rules as I am ourselves.”
Tom Kearney, managing editor of the Stowe Reporter and Waterbury Record, testified by phone to the committee Friday. The state called him for testimony, and he advocated for releasing details about the Waterbury dispensary.
Kearney said he questions the state’s withholding of records because he thinks that although patient confidentiality is protected, extending confidentiality to a corporation that would operate a dispensary is a stretch. That prevents media from knowing the officers or directors of an organization, he said.
He also said that from a practical perspective, a resident has a right to know if a dispensary will be located next door.
Flory recognized during the meeting that a town might not have zoning laws that would reveal some of that information. Not taking that into account was an oversight on the part of the Legislature, she suggested.
Rep. Ron Hubert, R-Milton, suggested after the meeting that legislators could ban dispensaries within a certain distance of schools, in the way that liquor stores currently are.
The Waterbury dispensary is one of up to four allowed under a recent state law. The others are to be in Burlington, south-central Vermont and northwestern Vermont outside of Chittenden County.
The Champlain Valley Dispensary, to be in Burlington, has volunteered information about its board members, the office building on the waterfront where the dispensary is to operate, and the area in South Burlington where it plans to grow its cannabis.
The executive director of the Champlain Valley Dispensary, Shayne Lynn, acknowledged during the meeting that because of zoning laws in Burlington and South Burlington, the public will be able to know the locations of the dispensary and cannabis-growing site.
But he said he’s working with South Burlington officials to try to minimize the release of information about the growing operations for security reasons.
Those seeking to keep such information from the public suggest patient confidentiality could be jeopardized. Several patients fear they could be robbed when leaving a dispensary, suggested Virginia Renfrew, an affiliate with The Vermont People with AIDS Coalition.
Lynn said that because the dispensary will be in a building with other offices, people won’t necessarily know whether someone entering the building is going to the dispensary.
In Waterbury, that might not be the case. Legislators suggested that if a dispensary has its own storefront, a patient’s confidentiality could be compromised if a caregiver is not picking up the product. They contrasted that with a pharmacy, where bystanders don’t necessarily know what kinds of prescriptions a person is picking up.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont Civil Liberties Union, also testified, responding to the testimony Friday of state staffer Francis “Paco” Aumand about how the state’s Public Safety Department interpreted the Legislature’s intent with the dispensary law.
According to Gilbert, Aumand said the agency determined that because legislators didn’t address confidentiality of certain information in the dispensary law, that meant the agency has discretion over withholding the records.
“That is not how our public records law works. Our public records law, the main basic premise is that all records gathered by a … public agency in the course of business are presumed public,” Gilbert said.
“It is only when you as legislators create a specific exemption that information be withheld,” he said. “We can never assume that information is private, is confidential, is nondisclosable. You must always cite a specific exemption for withholding that information.”
Aumand had reiterated the state’s position that his department seeks to protect the confidentiality of registered patients and doesn’t want to create an undue burden on dispensaries.
Aumand also told legislators that although his agency cannot release certain details, that doesn’t prevent other state agencies from legally doing so.
The Times Argus previously filed an open records request with the Public Safety Department seeking all dispensary applications submitted to the agency as well as various emails between key state staffers.
The request provided dozens of pages of emails, many with information blacked out, but the state provided no applications. An appeal by the paper resulted in no further information.
Some emails released as part of the initial request have revealed details about the Waterbury dispensary, called Patients First Inc. The executive director has a doctorate in plant biology, and board members include people with ties to the health care industry and one who is a certified public accountant.
The Times Argus filed another request Wednesday with a different public entity — which doesn’t have the same administrative rules as DPS — in an attempt to obtain records.