Vermont House lawmakers on Thursday for the first time passed a bill that would tax and regulate cannabis sales, sending it to the Senate two years after lawmakers passed a legalization bill that only allowed home grow.
Once lawmakers reconcile their versions, the bill, S. 54, will head to Governor Phil Scott’s desk. Scott vetoed an adult use legalization bill in 2017; this bill would not have legalized sales but called for a commission to study it. Then, in 2018, Scott signed into law the current program, which allows for personal use and home grows, but “with mixed emotions.”
Lawmakers took Scott’s concerns into consideration last year when crafting the first version of S. 54 to allow for adult use sales, which Vermont senators passed (23-5).
This week, during the second reading on Wednesday, Vermont House lawmakers voted 90 to 54 in favor of the bill. On Thursday, during the third and final reading, House lawmakers put forth a handful of amendments. The key amendments proposed were: 1.) requiring public disclosure of cannabis company ownership; 2.) a ban on cannabis advertising; 3.) allowing law enforcement to conduct saliva testing to determine cannabis impaired driving.
The first amendment, from Rep. Cynthia Browning, who represents Arlington, failed.
“All we are asking is identification of the owners. If we want to eliminate the black market, if we want to have safe and legal cannabis available to Vermonters, if we want to protect our young people from using cannabis, then we need to be sure that dark money, that undesirable funds, that organized crime do not get a foothold in our enterprises,” Browning said. “Without the requirement of full transparency of all ownership interests, I believe you’re leaving the door open for that to happen.”
Rep. Anne Donahue, who represents Northfield, proposed the amendment banning cannabis advertising, which was adopted. Donahue said she’s been “on the fence” about cannabis, in large part because of her “Libertarian kind of instincts.”
“Advertising is the attempt to influence the buying behavior of customers or clients with a persuasive selling message about products or services. It is about attempting to sell and expand the sales of something. If we don’t allow that for cigarettes and we allow it for cannabis, that is one heck of a mixed message. And I don’t think that’s the intent of this body,” Donahue said.
An amendment that called for a saliva test to help law enforcement detect impaired driving failed. “We already have a very accurate roadside test and that is the [Drug Recognition Expert] evaluation,” said Rep. John Gannon, who represents Wilmington. “My concerns,” Gannon said, “with respect to the saliva test on the roadside is it’s invasive, and that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not clearly established that saliva tests are accurate or reliable.”
These issues discussed today, from advertising to roadside testing, are likely to be top-of-mind during the reconciliation discussions.
If signed into law, the timeline is as follows: Rules would be finalized by December 2021, the first license applications would open in January 2022, and sales would go live by July 2022.
But existing medical dispensaries would be able to get an “integrated license” and begin sales in February 2022. The existing five shops in the state are owned by some of the largest multistate operators in the US, including Curaleaf (via its acquisition of Grassroots) and iAnthus.