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This time next year, retail shops selling cannabis will be opening their doors across the state, drawing customers from both down the road and across our borders.

In Windham County, Brattleboro, Jamaica and Londonderry have already voted to allow retail cannabis sales, joining around 30 municipalities statewide. Across Vermont, five municipalities have voted against, including Ludlow. Other towns are still considering whether to hold a vote.

Because Windham County comprises a diverse cross-section of youth and vulnerable adult populations, many decisions will need to be made in advance of opening retail cannabis shops. Among them, how to regulate the cannabis industry, establish zoning, safeguards, permitting, licensing and other procedures – even local taxation. All these factors will be hotly debated by community stakeholders, but who will make the final decisions?

Luckily, towns opting in to retail cannabis sales have the power right now to start setting up their own Cannabis Control Commissions (CCC).

A local CCC is a recommendation-based body which provides advice, options and key information to a select board, which would then decide whether to carry out its recommendations. Select boards can also grant CCCs the power to approve and deny license applications. Ideally, CCC stakeholders would include representatives throughout the community, such as medical professionals, people in recovery, law enforcement, school personnel, members of the business community, youth leaders, parents and substance use prevention specialists. Meeting regularly to consider cannabis-related issues, these voices would bring a wide array of expertise to the commission and ensure the select board responds in a thoughtful way to any question that might come up.

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In a survey earlier this year by Brattleboro’s Building a Positive Community, respondents expressed that among their greatest concerns about retail cannabis stores in their community was the potential impact on youth and other vulnerable populations, such as adults in recovery. Nearly 40 percent of respondents felt they didn’t have enough information about how retail cannabis sales might affect their town before they voted on it, while 24 percent said they weren’t sure. A CCC can help answer a range of questions arising within a community.

A CCC can also address another major concern that emerged in the survey: Who will benefit from cannabis sales? As Vermont’s new market rapidly develops, the state’s Cannabis Control Board estimates adult cannabis sales could reach $221 million by 2024 amid the proliferation of 70 dispensaries statewide. This fast-changing landscape is likely to have an enormous impact on our communities. For towns with a local option tax, CCCs will be able to advocate for the proceeds to be designated to protect and educate the public. (Under current law, without a 1 percent local option tax, towns will not receive any direct funds except for a small license fee from retailers.)

Because Vermont municipalities can set up their CCCs at any time, it is highly recommended that towns begin planning now. This could include public meetings to explore risks, consequences and policy outcomes for CCCs in your town. Public health and prevention experts, local law enforcement, emergency services, leaders and residents within the community should also be encouraged to weigh in.

According to the National Institutes of Health, one in six teens develop a substance-use disorder after using cannabis. In our latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 32 percent of Windham County high school students reported actively using cannabis, while 25 percent of those students said they used cannabis daily. Creating a local CCC shows a town’s commitment and accountability to its most vulnerable community members. CCCs can recommend safeguards, such as buffer zones between cannabis shops and places where youth gather; a maximum number of cannabis retailers; and zoning that keeps those in recovery in mind.

For those with questions, our organization, the Windham County Prevention Partnership (WCPP), is here to help. Funded by the Vermont Department of Health, we are dedicated to providing resources, support and information to ensure the wellbeing of all Windham County municipalities and residents. A low-impact environment amid rollout of retail cannabis will take funding, ongoing dialogue, advance planning and care, but it is achievable. Through CCCs, towns have the opportunity to shape how this new industry will affect them for the long term.

Cindy Hayford is the director of the Deerfield Valley Community Partnership; Cassandra Holloway is the director of Building a Positive Community; and Jacob Deutsch is the community project coordinator for West River Valley Thrives. Together, these organizations comprise the Windham Country Prevention Partnership. For more information, or to get involved, visit www.windhampartnership.org.

The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.