Cannabis bribery, ‘scromiting’ front page news in pot-legal Massachusetts

November 15, 2019 – by Guy Page – Marijuana cultivation and sale became legal in Massachusetts in 2016. Now, municipal officials are being investigated for soliciting and receiving big bribes from legal marijuana companies. Also, more people are visiting hospital emergency rooms for “scromiting” – screaming and non-stop vomiting that sometimes occurs after consumption of too much high-potency THC.

The Vermont Senate in March passed a ‘tax and regulate’ marijuana bill. S.54 is now in the House. At his press conference yesterday, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott  – the man with the veto power – said he was unaware of either the bribes or the scromiting. He’s not alone. Neither unwanted outcome has been discussed much during S.54 deliberations.

Gov. Scott added at the press conference, “we always want to learn from other states.” Massachusetts has much to teach Vermont officials about the impact of legalized commercial marijuana.

The Boston Globe reports that in September, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling charged the mayor of Fall River with demanding four marijuana businesses pay bribes totaling $575,000. Last month, he expanded his investigation to at least six other municipalities – including Northhampton, just 39 miles from Brattleboro.  

While most officials are honest, not all Vermont municipal and state officials are immune from financial crimes. Embezzlement is sufficiently widespread that retired CPA Don Keelan of Arlington wrote in VT Digger this week, “the most lucrative way to make money in Vermont is to embezzle it. It is a truism today as it has been for years.” Of course it takes two to tango. The legal marijuana industry has little involvement with U.S. banks, replaces an industry with criminal disregard for law, and (at least in Massachusetts) has an alleged history of participating in bribery.

Is Vermont prepared for the possibility of Big Marijuana bribery? Maybe not. Vermont’s ‘medical marijuana’ dispensaries control access to their so-called ‘public records,’ Sasha Goldstein of Seven Days reported October 2. When it comes to Vermont’s current legal marijuana industry, the State and the industry have agreed that public has little need to know. In a state proud of its government transparency and close oversight of industry, including health care, the medical marijuana industry seems to be a glaring exception – one that, again, has gone unnoticed by the Legislature and media until very recently.

The State of Vermont medical marijuana webpage publishes dispensaries’ glossy sales fliers but offers not the names of dispensary owners or record of warnings or enforcement against them. A reporter must take a deep dive into the Vermont Secretary of State’s business website to learn the names of the companies and their owners. Do any of the owners of dispensaries in the growing number of Massachusetts cities and towns under federal investigation also own Vermont dispensaries? It’s hard to say.

Unless Vermont ‘tax and regulate’ commercial marijuana receives far more government regulation and scrutiny than the laissez-faire treatment now afforded the medical marijuana industry, it’s possible Vermonters would not even know when the law is being broken – unless U.S. Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan is forced to step in, like her counterpart in Massachusetts.

As for ‘scromiting,’ the front page headline of the Nov. 12 Boston Globe story says, “It’s honestly hell.” The story reads, “Since recreational marijuana became legal in Massachusetts three years ago, hospitals have noticed more cases of a rare illness afflicting a small portion of heavy cannabis consumers. The condition, called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, can be horrific for patients, causing intense abdominal pain, nausea, and days-long vomiting episodes that are strangely relieved by hot showers or baths. The illness can be cured by quitting pot.” One patient vomited non-stop for 16 days.

If – as in Massachusetts – legalized, marketed sale of high-concentrate ‘edibles’ leads to more ER visits, is Vermont’s health care system prepared for added burden on ER and mental health services? And who will pay – the marijuana industry that sells the products, the consumers who buy them, or the already over-burdened Vermont health insurance rate payer?

Concerns about THC health effects are often laughed off as “reefer madness” by legalization supporters. Vermont pediatrician David Rettew sees nothing funny about it. On Nov. 11 he tweeted: “Every single time I am on call for psychiatry I am confronted with cannabis leading to paranoia leading to violence and threats leading to arrests and involuntary hospitalization.  We do nobody any favors by downplaying this risk.”

 The Legislature is likely to take up S54 in the 2020 session. Vermonters can hope bribery and scromiting are addressed – if not by the Legislature, then by Gov. Scott.

Meanwhile, some Vermont municipalities are taking matters into their own hands. The Town of Clarendon has passed an ordinance “to prohibit the sale and dispensing of Marijuana within the town.” Rutland County Sheriff’s Department will be the enforcing agency, with fines of up to $500 assessed daily.