Vermont is now the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana sales. It’s also only the second state (after Illinois) to pass such an effort through a state legislature, rather than a ballot initiative. Even though Republican Gov. Phil Scott is refusing to sign the measure, it’s now slated to become law after passing both the state House and Senate.
The new marijuana law takes effect Jan. 1, 2021. Scott won’t be signing it though. He fears already legal medical marijuana businesses in Vermont are given an unfair advantage from the measure, and he’s worried the 30 percent tax on cannabis sales enshrined in the legislation will be “raided” by lawmakers; instead of going to the drug treatment programs it’s currently earmarked for.
Still, he let it pass into law in a letter to legislators.
“There is still more work to be done to ensure the health and safety of our kids and the safety of our roadways – we should heed the public health and safety lessons of tobacco and alcohol,” Scott stated.
Scott did sign a companion bill that allows the state to automatically expunge all cannabis possession offenses.
Retail cannabis sales won’t begin until at least 2022 – once rules and regulations are written, reviewed, and approved. The legislature will begin the process by selecting commissioners for the state’s new Cannabis Control Board.
“The bill reflects that legislators actually listened to their constituents over the course of many years,” Matt Simon, the New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, told The News Station.
He says, in the end and after some tense political drama, the governor’s signature doesn’t make a difference.
“From our perspective, it’s the same result. The bill becomes law,” Simon said.
He says the social justice bill is a valuable addition. It would automatically expunge the possession records of more than 10,000 Vermonters while making possession of up to two ounces of cannabis, 10 grams of hashish, four mature plants and eight immature plants a civil offense rather than a criminal one.
Clearing those criminal records is a big win, especially with a Republican in the governor’s mansion.
“The state will spend the money to do it, and that’s awesome,” Simon said.
Much like in other states, the legislation allows each local municipality in Vermont to decide for itself whether to allow retail marijuana sales.
There are strict rules on the number of licenses allowed. Applicants can have only one grow facility, one processing facility, and one retail license. That allows applicants to own their entire operation while discouraging large-scale operators. The legislature instructed the board to create a prioritization system that favors minorities, women, and others affected by the drug war.
“They want a market that allows small cultivators who are not pushed by the corporate players,” Simon explained. “And regulators have to prioritize and limit multiple licenses.”
The legislature reconvenes in January. Simon expects intense struggles ahead over sections of the bill that still lack clarity. And road safety is expected to be a battle to come.
“The governor wanted roadside saliva tests,” Simon said. “So there is a provision that they would have to get a search warrant before they do that.”
Another expected point of contention concerns potency limits, or how much THC will be allowed in each product. Most states don’t limit THC amounts, and advocates fear the regulatory market in Vermont could be crippled from its inception if more anti-legalization lawmakers are able to enshrine weaker weed in the state’s statutes.
“There were a number of compromises,” Simon said. “A number of doctors testified about the possible dangers of high potencies, but limiting potency is like asking people to go to Massachusetts.”
Simon, who has been involved in Vermont marijuana legalization efforts for a decade, says the state has long wrestled with the cannabis issue, especially because Vermonters are known for their rugged individualism and strong libertarian streaks. Pressure only increased once its southern neighbors down in Massachusetts legalized cannabis in 2016. And the pressure got ratcheted up once again when Maine, which it borders to the east, finally opened retail cannabis stores earlier this month.
Vermont began looking into a marijuana regulatory system back in 2014. The next year, two legalization bills – one in the Senate and another in the House – both were shot down. In 2017, the state House and Senate approved legislation to allow possession of an ounce or less, but it was vetoed by Gov. Scott. An amended version, which legalized one ounce and allowed adults to cultivate two plants, did eventually garner Scott’s signature.
The legislature gets the final say though. They’re charged with approving – or rejecting – the rules and regulations sent to them by the new cannabis board.
But, like all things marijuana, in this new era of slowly unwinding the war on ‘drugs,’ the work isn’t over – even if advocates are celebrating this huge victory for such a tiny state.
“The law was passed. It will be fiddled with, and all the rules have to be approved,” Simon said. “There are so many areas we can improve.”