Legislators seek input on marijuana law

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TOWNSHEND — Abuse prevention experts in Windham County are asking questions and registering concerns about how a marijuana bill making its way through the Legislature would affect residents and their communities.

"We called this meeting to help our towns be pro-active in thinking through what we may or may not want for commercial marijuana," Steve Tavella, executive director of the substance abuse prevention group West River Valley Thrives, said at a Legislative Breakfast at the Townshend Church on Monday.

The bill in question — S.54, an act relating to the regulation of cannabis — passed on the Senate floor in March and has since been referred to the House Ways & Means Committee. Monday's discussion was set up to provide a forum for municipalities, schools, social service and health care agencies, faith-based institutions, law enforcement and parents to learn more about what is in this draft legislation, and what towns can do about planning and zoning laws.

Legislative panelists included state Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham District, and state Reps. Kelly Pajala, an independent serving the Windham-Bennington-Windsor District; Laura Sibilia, an independent serving the Wilmington-Bennington District; and Emily Long, D-Windham-5.

The legislators explained that the bill approved by the Senate covers just tax and regulation (a separate bill — S.146, an act relating to substance misuse prevention — was signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott on June 20).

The House is considering updating S.54 to address abuse prevention efforts. A conference committee will iron out the differences between the two bills.

Most of the discussion Monday centered on steps that towns can take to either embrace the new law and its benefits, or keep their communities free from harmful side effects.

"There are provisions in there that towns can opt out — like alcohol sales," said White. "Those that opt in can impose a 2 percent local option tax."

She added, "House Ways & Means doesn't like the local option tax, so we don't know what will happen with that."

"This bill is in process and it has not achieved its final form," Sibilia explained. "The language may change, if in fact there is a will to pass the bill. At the end of the day, passing legislation is basically a mathematical equation.

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"This meeting is important for you to tell us what is important," she added.

JoEllen Tarallo-Falk, executive director of the Center for Health and Learning in Brattleboro, shared her concerns about the health impact of a regulated marijuana market in Vermont.

She noted that 50 percent of suicides have a substance abuse element, and that Vermont has higher than the national average in rates of suicide, binge drinking, and drug use, including marijuana and opiates.

"Prevention is absolutely critical," she said, stressing that access and advertising toward youth must be limited. "The more you delay use, the more you stave off abuse."

Ken Estey of the Newfane Plannining Committee also expressed concern about the "hard specter" of marijuana retail shops sprouting up in local towns.

Pajala said there has been some discussion on limiting the amount of advertising and what types of displays could be put up outside a store. She encouraged attendees to start these conversations at the local level now, to determine if they want to opt out of sales or pass zoning laws to regulate such businesses.

"You as municipalities have the power to weigh in for what is right for your communities," said Pajala.

"Reach out to your school board to see what is being done in your schools for prevention," added Long.

The legislators also encouraged forum participants to testify at the state level.

"Stay involved in the process and help legislators identify what is important at the local level," said Sibilia.

"The more specific the feedback, the better," added White.


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