Vermont Senate approves tax and regulate marijuana compromise

Marijuana plants grow in a field off of Upper Dummerston in Brattleboro.

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MONTPELIER — A bill taxing and regulating the legal sale of marijuana and cannabis products in Vermont is headed to Gov. Phil Scott's desk.

The Vermont Senate voted 23-6 on Tuesday to approve a conference committee report on S.54, a bill establishing a state Cannabis Control Board and setting the legal parameters for the sale of cannabis products containing THC, the compound that gives the substance psychoactive properties. Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion of Bennington County, and Sens. Becca Balint and Jeanette White of Windham County, all voted yes.

The Vermont House of Representatives passed the compromise 92-54 on Thursday. Scott will now have seven days to sign it, allow it to become law without his signature, or veto it.

Under current law, marijuana is legal to possess in small amounts in Vermont, but cannot be legally purchased or sold, except by licensed medical marijuana dispensaries. The bill would change that by establishing a commission responsible for setting the framework for the legal cultivation, testing and sale of cannabis products in Vermont.

Sears, who has been among lawmakers working on the issue for the past decade, outlined the compromise reached by a conference committee of three senators and three House members. He said the bill was intended not as a vehicle for generating revenue, but for assuring consumer safety and public education for a substance used regularly by an estimated 80,000 Vermonters without any regulation.

"Consumer safety issues surrounding marijuana led me to support this bill," Sears said. "The tax revenue for me is secondary."

State Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, echoed Sears' desire to address the safety of marijuana use in the state by eliminating the black market. He warned that the bill is not a "magic wand" that will make cannabis-related drug problems disappear, or produce a revenue source that can address the state's financial wish list.

"Vermont has been recognized for a decade now as being at the top in virtually every category of per-capita [cannabis] consumption while it has been sold in an underground market," Benning said. "We need to get hold of this as much as we possibly can. Is this the cure-all? Certainty not. This process continues. This is not waving of magic wand in which all this is resolved."

A coalition of activists has said it is seeking a veto from Scott on grounds that the bill fails to address the historic racism in cannabis prohibition, or provide economic justice to smaller growers. Those concerns led Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, to oppose the bill.

"Systemic racism is not about animosity or superstition," McCormack said. "It's about the negative racial impacts of policies and practices in our system. Failure to address these racial impacts is a sin of omission."

Sears, in addressing those concerns before the vote, pointed out that the bill does provide priority to women and members of marginalized communities in awarding licenses, and requires that prior marijuana-related offenses not be considered an impediment to people seeking a cannabis business license. And he noted that a separate bill, S. 234, approved Tuesday by the Senate immediately after it approved the cannabis compromise, expunged the marijuana-related convictions of more than 10,000 Vermonters.

A number of senators said the compromise, while not perfect, provides the state with the framework to move forward, bringing an underground economy above board and eventually providing funding for after-school programs and substance misuse education,

"Do we believe our current system of prohibition works or is it time to have a regulated and taxed system?" White said. "It is important we have a regulated system to assure quality and safety."

Sen. Christopher Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, said the compromise is "a step forward" on several fronts.

"Continuing prohibition and the strange system we have set up is a no-brainer. That would further perpetuate the racial history of the prohibition of cannabis," Pearson said. "While this bill is not perfect, moving forward is a better step in my mind."

In the compromise voted on Tuesday, the Senate assented to fee revenue from cannabis businesses being shared with communities, rather than the percentage of tax revenue it had sought. It went along with a roadside saliva test — obtained with a warrant — which it had strongly opposed. Gov. Phil Scott has also made roadside testing one of his conditions for signing a tax and regulate marijuana bill.

The House, in that compromise, gave up its insistence upon seat belt use becoming a primary reason for motor vehicle stops as part of the bill. The House also allowed for state agencies to establish advertising guidelines, rather than the full advertising ban it had sought, and assented to moving the medical marijuana program from the Department of Public Safety, where it now resides, to the newly-created Cannabis Control Board.

The bill proposes a 14 percent excise tax on cannabis products, of which 30 percent is earmarked for substance abuse prevention, and extends the 6 percent sales tax to cannabis products.

It establishes a cannabis control board with an executive director to govern the tax and regulate market. It provides for communities to opt-in via an Australian ballot vote, and provides funding from fees paid by cannabis businesses to pay for the hosting costs in those towns.

However, the control board would be expected to prioritize licenses for medical dispensaries and minority- and women-owned businesses, and assure a fair geographic distribution of licenses across the state.

The bill provides for potency limits, and outlaws flavored products that could be marketed to younger users. It requires the control board develop health warnings in consultation with the Department of Health.

Small-scale cultivators — those raising 1,000 square feet or less — would be able to claim the state's "current use" tax provisions for farmland. But under the law, cannabis cultivation would not be defined as agricultural product. When asked by Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans about that, Sears explained that because Vermont is a right to farm state, defining cannabis as agricultural would allow it to be grown anywhere.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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