As lawmakers’ debate in Vermont over cannabis sales finally nears the finish line, the Senate proposed a package of compromises Friday afternoon that, if passed, would result in one of the strictest adult use cannabis sales programs in the country.
The conference committee, consisting of key members from both chambers, will meet again, though as of late Friday afternoon, that date had not been set.
The committee met on Friday afternoon, virtually, for the fourth time, to try to reach compromises on several aspects of cannabis sales policy: how local control will unfold; what kind of advertising—if any—would be allowed; saliva testing for measuring impaired driving; and a House-backed seatbelt provision, which Senate lawmakers say is not only irrelevant, but could disproportionately affect people of color.
Some context: Before COVID-19 put many United States legislatures on hold, the Vermont Senate and House chambers had both passed legislation that would tax and regulate cannabis sales. A committee of six lawmakers formed to try to reconcile the differences between the Senate and House versions of the legislation. Once they are able to do so, and the chambers approve the reconciled version, the bill will head toward Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.
After entering breakout rooms, the Senate returned with a batch of compromises on Friday afternoon, with Sen. Dick Sears saying, “It’s surprising how near we are, yet still far apart.”
Among the compromises, pending House approval of Senate requests: the Senate would agree to the House’s opt-in position regarding local control. (As Cannabis Wire noted in previous coverage, the Senate’s position was that jurisdictions aiming to ban commercial cannabis activity would have to opt-out.)
The Senate also tentatively agreed to the House proposal on allowable THC concentration for cannabis products. The House proposal is the strictest in the country, with a proposal to ban cannabis flower containing more than 30% THC, and cannabis concentrates containing more than 60% THC. The Senate, on the other hand, proposed that the only types of products that should be banned are cannabis in nicotine and alcohol products, or those created to be appealing to children.
The Senate also said that they would agree to the House proposal on advertising, which would ban all cannabis-related advertising, while the Senate proposal would have allowed it, with restrictions, like requiring an entity to show that 70% of the intended audience is older than 21, the legal age of consumption.
“We believe that it probably will end up in the courts. But we realize that you’re having difficulty moving from your position,” Sears said.
Sears said the Senate would also budge on saliva tests for cannabis-related impairment, which has been a strong point of disagreement in the past. While interest is rising in saliva tests, they are not the industry standard (in fact, most law enforcement departments still rely on Drug Recognition Experts to detect cannabis impairment in drivers).
In return, the Senate asked for the two percent local option tax, removal of the state assessed local fees, and removal of an open container provision that was added Friday. The big one that the Senate asked to be removed was the seatbelt provision.
Sears expressed frustration during Friday’s meeting, saying, “Until seat belts move, there’s no point in us meeting. Why waste our time?” He continued, reiterating,“There is no compromise on seat belts. So it’s either out or there’s no point continuing to discuss.”
Sen. Joe Benning again emphasized the potential for disproportionate enforcement of the seatbelt provision. “In the middle of a Black Lives movement, conversations we are having, to me, that is just an absolute wrong way to go,” Bening said. “And I can’t wait to see how the press is going to react to that. I don’t know where that idea came from, but it is very troubling for me. And I’m really having a hard time with that, and I can’t stress that enough.”
The House tentatively budged on their seat belt provision and other Senate counter-proposals, but with some modifications, including that they want to maintain their tax structure.
Now, the committee will need to hammer out remaining differences, including on the House proposal regarding taxes, and then Michele Childs, legislative counsel, will draft a final bill.
“We’re all Zoomed out,” Sears said, at the end of the meeting.