MONTPELIER — Vermont will join the ranks of states allowing the legal sale of marijuana and cannabis products under a bill allowed to pass into law by Gov. Phil Scott without his signature on Wednesday.
Scott, in choosing to allow S. 54 to pass into law, asked the Legislature to make additional changes and improvements in January when it returns, namely in the areas of addressing the impact of historic racism as part of cannabis prohibition, and in providing more opportunity for women and people of color in the new marketplace.
“This has been a top priority for the majority in the Legislature for four years, but their work is not complete. They must ensure equity in this new policy and prevent their priority from becoming a public health problem for current and future generations,” Scott said.
Sales are not expected to begin until 2022, as the law provides for a number of steps that must be followed for the state to establish its framework for legal sale of products containing THC, the psychoactive compound that imparts the “high” from cannabis.
Until that framework is in place, Vermont marijuana users remain in a legal limbo, where they can possess a small amount of the substance, but cannot legally buy or sell it. Vermont decriminalized marijuana possession in 2014 and legalized adult possession in 2018.
Scott said the licensing framework in the bill “will disproportionately benefit Vermont’s existing medical dispensaries by giving them sole access to integrated licenses and an unfair head start on market access. ... This creates an inequitable playing held both for our smaller minority and women-owned business applicants, and other small Vermont growers and entrepreneurs.”
Scott, while noting the bill does include some provisions for women- and minority-owned businesses, pointed to efforts in Illinois as a model of creating a cannabis market “that is equitable and moves toward economic justice.”
Scott’s other requests include:
• Removing an authorization for the sale of cannabis vaping products. “The bill’s authorization for the production and sale of cannabis oil vaping products is completely contradictory and counter to our public health goals,” he said. “The Legislature needs to strengthen education and prevention – including banning marketing that appeals in any way to our kids – otherwise they are failing to learn the lessons of the public health epidemic caused by tobacco and alcohol.”
• Extending the deadline for appointing the Cannabis Control Board, now set for Jan. 8, 2021, as Scott took issue with the current set up that only allows the board to remove members for cause.
• Stipulating that a 30 percent excise tax set-aside for misuse prevention programming must be dedicated to a special fund for that purpose, so that it can’t be redirected by the Legislature.
• Funding and resources to provide law enforcement at least 16 hours of advanced roadside impaired driving enforcement training.
The decision by Scott caps years of effort by lawmakers to achieve a legal marketplace for cannabis in the Green Mountain State and regulate a widely used substance in the bargain.
They did so while trying to meet the concerns of competing groups of stakeholders, including law enforcement, pro-legalization activists, medical professionals, civil libertarians, substance abuse counselors, and entrepreneurs.
A coalition of farmers and racial and social justice activists had sought a veto from Scott, saying the bill did not do enough for small growers and did not adequately address the impact decades of marijuana prohibition had on people of color.
However, some activists called on Scott to sign the bill, saying it was a significant first step in addressing those issues, especially when compared to other states, and that it would finally and fully end marijuana prohibition in Vermont.
Presently, California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon and Washington all presently have legal marijuana sales, and Maine is set to join them on Friday.
For years, the Vermont Legislature had been working to arrive at a compromise that would regulate what is presently a burgeoning black market. The compromise reached this fall by a conference committee including state Sens. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, Jeanette White, D-Windham, and state Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, established a Cannabis Control Board that will set regulations and oversee the new marketplace, and set aside portions of tax and free revenue for substance abuse education, after-school programming and host town expenses.
The compromise had detractors. It allows for advertising under yet-to-be determined guidelines, which many House lawmakers opposed, and saliva testing of motorists believed to be under the influence after obtaining a warrant, which was opposed by the Senate but much desired by the Scott administration and many House members.
In a separate bill Scott signed into law on Wednesday, the state expunged the marijuana-related convictions of more than 10,000 Vermonters.