There was a time, not so long ago, when Vermont Gov. Howard Dean came down firmly on the side of the anti-marijuana crusaders.
In those days, says Dean, he felt proponents of medical marijuana were just using their support for that issue as a smokescreen for a general push toward full legalization. Dean, who served five two-year terms from 1991 to 2003 as Vermont governor, was against all of it.
That was the 1990s, when little was known about using the compound CBD to treat seizures. Back then, there were few policymakers who knew the difference between THC (the chemical that gets marijuana users high) and the non-psychogenic CBD, which is now added to foods, drinks, lotions and other items. Back then, presidential candidates were still being asked if they had ever smoked pot (they usually had).
In 2003, when Dean was running for president, he said on his campaign website that decriminalizing drugs would send “a very bad message to young people.” The country already had issues with alcohol and tobacco, “and adding a third drug is not a good idea.”
Six years earlier, in 1997 he told the New York Times he opposed allowing the growth of industrial hemp because “the principal interest of the advocates is to legalize marijuana.”
Now Dean, like so many people in Vermont, has switched sides on the once-fiery issue. In December, he joined the advisory board of Tilray, a publicly traded Canadian cannabis company that says it provide cannabis flower and extract products to patients, physicians, and pharmacies on five continents.
A catalyst for the change, Dean said, was conversations he had with his daughter, who is a public defender in the Bronx. She told him about her young clients who were jailed, their lives derailed, for possessing marijuana.
“Then it became pretty obvious that poor kids of color with bad educations, they already had three strikes against them and the fourth was having a joint,” said Dean. “Which after all is probably not as bad as alcohol.”
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Another thing that changed Dean’s view was conventional medical research that has shown over the last few years that CBD can mitigate some seizure disorders, as many patients and their parents had been telling regulators for several years. In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug Epidiolex, made from CBD, for the treatment of seizures associated with two severe forms of epilepsy.
Faced with “the combination of deciding medical marijuana might really have some efficacy, backed up by studies that I thought were reasonable, which I didn’t think were reasonable 10 years earlier, backed up by my daughter’s public defender experience, I flipped,” said Dean.
Dean noted this was not his first change of heart.
“I flipped on needle exchange early on,” he said. “I’m a physician. Studies showed that needle exchange saved lives. It was not ideological; it was about what the facts were. The facts were needle exchange did work well.”
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a longtime legalization advocate, served in the state Legislature when Dean was governor and lawmakers were starting to discuss reforming Vermont’s cannabis laws.
“I remember the governor being quite opposed to cannabis for medical or any other purpose,” said Zuckerman. “He reflects the evolution that has happened with thousands if not millions of Americans when presented with factual information and not 80 years of propaganda.”
Dean said he joined the advisory board of Tilray because he was impressed with the professionalism of the company, which bills itself as one of the largest of its type in Canada. He first visited Tilray five years ago through his part-time work with Dentons, a multinational law firm where he is a senior advisor.
“It does a number of things that interest me,” said Dean. “It’s a medical marijuana company, and it was legal in Canada at the time. So I walk through their plant, and it’s a pharmaceutical plant. Everyone is running around in hairnets. It’s all being run by Yale business school graduates in suits and ties. That kind of got my attention.”
Last year, it became legal in Vermont to grow a small number of marijuana plants, containing THC, for personal use. It’s also legal to grow hemp to produce CBD, an industry that is regulated by the state Agency of Agriculture and is growing rapidly. Vermont lawmakers are now discussing the taxes and regulations that would accompany full legalization of cannabis production for any use.
Legalization of cannabis of every type is inevitable in Vermont, said Dean, who believes it will result in a safer product.
“There is a lot of really bad stuff going on now,” he said of the marijuana that is for sale illegally. “Maybe it would be a good idea if people had a predictable, reliable brand, and not something off the black market. The black market stuff kills people.”
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