Vermont Senate committee studies legalization of marijuana

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MONTPELIER >> A Vermont Senate committee dug into details Tuesday surrounding legalized marijuana, ranging from the size of grow operations to whether preferences should be given in granting grower licenses.

Supporters of legalization said in testimony before the Senate Government Operations Committee that they believe the laws should allow people to grow their own marijuana at home for their own consumption, but any commercial operations should be limited in size.

Sen. Jeannette White, committee chairwoman, said the panel wants to work out the details of legalizing marijuana in Vermont before sending the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The full Senate and House would decide whether the state should go that route.

"If you had some parameters around it, it's easier to talk about should it or shouldn't it" be legalized, the Windham County Democrat said.

White said another hearing will be held Nov. 19, and she hoped legislation could be drafted by Dec. 10, the deadline for bills to be considered by lawmakers, who reconvene in January.

Most seemed to agree that if marijuana is legalized, people should be able to grow it for their own consumption, but would need a license to sell it. From there, the debate centered on how to regulate the market, with much discussion on ensuring a role for small Vermont producers and retailers versus large commercial interests that could dominate the market.

"We want Vermonters from all walks of life and all income levels to have the opportunity to participate in this market," said Bill Lofy, a former top aide to Gov. Peter Shumlin and now representative of the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative. The group is made up of pro-legalization business leaders.

"We think cooperatives could allow small craft growers to enter the market and have the kind of impact on our economy that craft brewers have already had," Lofy said.

Emily Amanna operates a small farm in the southern Vermont town of Athens, and said she hoped diversifying into marijuana could be a boon to her business. She asked lawmakers to keep license fees and regulatory burdens low to avoid discouraging small farmers from getting into the business.

Howard Fairman of Putney said he would like to see conventional Vermont farmers be given some sort of preference for growers' licenses, leading to discussion about whether a point system should be established for the distribution of licenses.

Fairman said lawmakers should be aware of the likelihood of some "dislocation" in Vermont's agricultural economy, especially due to the value of a marijuana crop. He said growing hay produces $200-$300 a year in annual income per acre; apples, $8,000 an acre; marijuana, $192,000 an acre.

Others spoke of a spike in tourism to Vermont, especially if it beats other northeastern states to legalizing marijuana.


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