Vermont legislative leaders, and the state’s attorney general, held a news conference ahead of Governor Phil Scott’s State of the State address Thursday to express support for a framework for legal adult use cannabis sales.
While the state legislature legalized cannabis in 2018, including home cultivation, it did not legalize sales. So the state has been in something of a regulatory limbo in the time since. S. 54, which would regulate and tax cannabis sales for adults 21 and older, passed in the Senate last year and, having passed in the House Committee on Government Operations, is now under consideration by other House committees.
Attorney General T.J. Donovan, who hosted a cannabis summit in early December 2019 (read Cannabis Wire’s coverage), was joined Thursday by Sen. Dick Sears, chair of the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, chair of the House Committee on Government Operations.
“Let me tell you what isn’t the Vermont way: telling Vermonters that you can legally possess cannabis, but being absolutely silent on how they obtain it. Let’s trust Vermonters, let’s believe in the goodness of Vermonters. And let’s treat people like adults,” Donovan said. “Let’s go into the 21st century. Let’s have a fully regulated market. And let’s let Vermont compete in this industry.”
Sears, a longtime state senator, represents the Bennington area. “I voted for legalization with an expectation we would have a taxed and regulated system,” he said.
Sears pointed out that Vermonters are already buying cannabis, either on the illicit market, or by getting in their cars and purchasing legal cannabis “from my good friend, south of the border in Massachusetts,” where cannabis sales are legal.
“We are shipping tax dollars out of state and fueling the economy in those states,” Sears said. “It makes no sense whatsoever.”
Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas is chair of the House Committee on Government Operations, or, as she put it, “the committee that’s tasked with shepherding this bill through the House,” where she’s “captaining its passage.”
Copeland-Hanzas said that any committee with jurisdiction over the cannabis sales bill is getting a chance to weigh in before it’s advanced. “This measured approach should really reassure Vermonters that we are taking the time to get it right,” she said.
During this process, some parts of the bill were refined, including areas involving land use and the environmental impacts of cannabis businesses, prevention of youth access to cannabis, and tax rates for regulated products.
The current iteration of the bill aims to address the three main concerns that Governor Scott raised last year: roadway safety, police training, and saliva testing; youth prevention, which is expected to be given a “substantial amount of revenue in a future regulated cannabis market;” and local control. On that last note, Copeland-Hanzas said, “we want to make sure that Vermonters are engaging in the process of whether a retail cannabis establishment opens in their community. And to do that, the House position at this point is that municipalities would opt in.”
“This is an opportunity, and a very unique opportunity, to stand up a new industry and to create jobs and to fill some of our vacant manufacturing and warehouse facilities in Vermont and to give the opportunity for many of our struggling farms to diversify into another cash crop,” Copeland-Hanzas said.
Gov. Scott, who was interrupted by climate protesters at the start of his speech, gave his State of the State address later in the afternoon. Scott didn’t mention cannabis or legal sales once.
Scott vetoed a cannabis legalization bill in 2017 that had passed in the state’s legislature, but said that he would work with lawmakers on a path forward if his concerns were addressed. When he signed cannabis legalization bill H. 511 in 2018, he did so with “mixed emotions,” he said in a statement at the time.
“There must be comprehensive and convincing plans completed in these areas before I will begin to consider the wisdom of implementing a commercial ‘tax and regulate’ system for an adult marijuana market. It is important for the General Assembly to know that – until we have a workable plan to address each of these concerns – I will veto any additional effort along these lines, which manages to reach my desk,” Scott said then.
Dave Silberman, a Middlebury attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate, spoke during Thursday’s news conference. Silberman told Cannabis Wire that it’s “no secret” that Scott is “no fan of drug policy reform,” given his previous veto. Silberman said he wasn’t surprised that Scott didn’t include cannabis in his priorities for 2020 in his State of the State address.
“What remains to be seen is whether the specific ‘concerns’ he has raised — on traffic safety, youth drug prevention, and municipal power — are his real concerns, or a fig leaf for a broader prohibitionist viewpoint. That will be put to the test, as the legislature has gone to great efforts to address each and every one of his stated concerns,” Silberman said.