Vermont Hempicurean

Scott Sparks, owner of Vermont Hempicurean, in Brattleboro, Vt., fills an online order on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Sparks said he plans to apply for a license to sell cannabis, but he said waiting a year to begin the process could put him at a disadvantage.

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BRATTLEBORO — Brattleboro voters will get to decide in March whether to allow retail sales of marijuana products within the town limits.

On Tuesday night, the Select Board voted 5-0 to put the question on the ballot on March 2, when voters will go to the polls around Vermont for municipal elections.

At the end of the last legislative session, Vermont lawmakers approved Act 164, which sets the Green Mountain State on a path towards the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Vermont became the 11th state to legalize cannabis sales. Currently, medicinal marijuana is available to those who qualify.

As part of Act 164, towns have to vote to “opt in” to allow sales within their border, said Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell. To do so, the Board must put the item on the ballot and allow the voters to decide.

However, noted Elwell, Act 164 also states no town can prohibit activities related to the supply side of cannabis sales, such as growing, processing and distribution.

In Brattleboro, said Elwell, those activities will be regulated by the town’s zoning ordinance and land use regulations. He also noted that other towns in the state don’t have zoning ordinances.

Although the Board didn’t need to put the item on the ballot this year, Elwell urged the Board to allow voters to weigh in early.

State regulators have until October 2022 to establish a Cannabis Control Board, the appointed body that will oversee the establishment of the market. The three-person Board will be responsible for making rules for recreational cannabis establishments and medical cannabis dispensaries by June 1.

Additional responsibilities include setting guidelines for advertising and rules for cultivators, manufacturers and retailers.

Elwell said if town voters want to opt in, the town of Brattleboro can get involved in and have a voice in the process right away. If voters don’t want to opt in, he said, town staffers don’t need to spend time on the issue and can instead focus on more pressing demands.

“It’s important for us to know the sense of the people in Brattleboro,” said Elwell. “Choosing where to spend our time is not unimportant.”

Board members heard from Cassandra Holloway, of Building A Positive Community, urged the Board to wait a year before putting it to the voters. She said this would give Brattleboro residents more time to review the pros and cons to legalizing marijuana sales.

“We are asking our town to vote with no real information about what they are voting on,” said Holloway. “We haven’t figure out on a state level how this will all play out.”

She urged the Board to consider those who might be negatively affected by cannabis sales in Brattleboro, including youth and those recovering from substance abuse.

“This is going to have a permanent impact on this community, positive or negative,” she said. “There is no need to vote this early.”

Scott Sparks, the owner of Vermont Hempicurean, which offers products containing CBD, a non-psychoactive component of hemp that people use for mood stabilization and pain relief, said if Brattleboro opts in, he plans to apply for a license to sell cannabis. He said waiting a year to begin the process could put him at a disadvantage.

“As a business owner I would like to know sooner rather than later,” said Sparks, adding if Brattleboro opts in, he plans to apply for a license and move from his Flat Street location to new location.

“I think I have proven I can run a responsible business that obeys all the rules and is respectful of people and I would do the same [with cannabis sales],” he said. “More information earlier would be better for me.”

Elwell noted there is already a medicinal marijuana store in Brattleboro, Southern Vermont Wellness on Putney Road.

“There are cannabis products being legally sold in Brattleboro at this time, but under much stricter controls than envisioned for retail sales,” he said.

“This isn’t really happening in a bubble,” said Board member Ian Goodnow. “Marijuana legalization has been coming for a very long time.”

Goodnow said he has faith in Brattleboro voters to consider the pros and cons before they vote.

Board Chairman Tim Wessel noted that while the tax model outlined in Act 164 “wasn’t really what we were hoping for,” Brattleboro is on a better footing than other towns when it comes to revenue because it has the 1 percent local option tax.

According to Act 164, a 14 percent excise tax on all retail sales will be collected by the state, as will the state’s 6 percent sales tax. Thirty percent of the excise tax, or up to $10 million, will be directed towards drug use prevention and education initiatives.

According to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, under Act 164, Vermont municipalities won’t receive any of the tax revenue and will be prohibited from assessing a local cannabis tax.

“This means that if your town currently does not have a local option sales tax, it will receive no revenue from hosting a facility in the new cannabis marketplace,” states the VLCT. “Your municipality will need to adopt a town-wide local option sales tax that would apply to all businesses, not just cannabis operations. You will, however, be responsible for hosting the facility and any potential impacts of it in town. This outcome is unacceptable and unfair.”

The Senate version of the bill included a local 2 percent option tax on cannabis sales, but that provision was eliminated from the final version.

“It’s certainly not the model of local taxation we were hoping for and fought for pretty clearly at the state level,” said Wessel. “But Brattleboro is in a much stronger position than some towns because we do have our 1 percent local option sales tax.”

One-third of every penny of the town’s local option tax stays with the state.

Wessel said keeping two-thirds of each penny means Brattleboro collects each year between $800,000 and $900,000 in additional revenue.

It hasn’t been established yet if the local select boards will act in regards to cannabis in the same way they act as town liquor commissioners, who process liquor license applications.

In addition to legalizing sale of cannabis, the Legislature passed S. 234, which automatically expunges low-level cannabis convictions and decriminalizes exceeding the legal possession and cultivation limit.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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