Politics

“It’ll seem like a miracle:” Vermont Pot Industry Push Gets Messy

By Hilary Corrigan Aug 26, 2020
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Legislation to create a REC industry in Vermont continues to advance, but to pass it needs to address pressure from both the left and right.

Critics say it isn’t progressive enough, the Progressive/Democrat lieutenant governor wants some police provisions removed and no one seems too sure if the Republican governor will sign it.

Vermont legalized REC in 2018, but it’s the only fully legal state not to set up a regulatory structure for an industry. Differing versions of a bill to create commercial pot sales—known as S.54—passed the state’s Senate and House earlier this year, then stalled on account of the pandemic. 

The legislature has extended its session and a conference committee for the bill is working out differences between the two chambers’ versions. For the bill to pass this year, it must pass both chambers by the end of September.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Matt Simon, New England Political Director with Marijuana Policy Project, an advocate for it. “It’s been a long time coming,” Simon said. “It’ll seem like a miracle when it happens.”

Promises only?

A coalition of Vermont social justice and agricultural nonprofits and businesses have opposed the measure, saying it doesn’t do enough for minorities and small farmers.

Decriminalizing cannabis and setting up legal markets in various states “has thus far resulted in few outcomes which begin to address and redress” the impacts of the racist drug war policy and the criminalization of cannabis, the group states. Instead, the changes have advanced “systemic white supremacy, racism, and economic inequity in the cannabis industry.”

The coalition notes the legal cannabis market’s huge value and the small portion of Black-owned cannabis businesses. “S.54 is a continuation of that policy which we find unacceptable for Vermont,” the coalition states.

Bernardo Antonio, education director with Vermont Growers Association, said the legislation has “a lot of promises and not a lot of things written into law.”

Besides what he sees as inadequate provisions on racial and social justice and expungement of records, Antonio objects to provisions that let existing MED dispensary owners—some of which he notes are partly owned by large corporations—get vertically-integrated licenses early on.

He also questions a lack of detail, saying the measure leaves all the actual rulemaking up to a commission. He wants to see the legislature “pass something that goes beyond the status quo” and advances small businesses, social justice and racial equality. “On its face, this doesn’t do enough for me.”

“Why rush to get this through now?” he asked, noting that a new legislative session, with some new legislators, begins in about three months. “Scrap this bill and begin again.”

He pointed to situations in Maine and other states, where corporations have sued over provisions for local-ownership. There are ways to structure such requirements correctly, he said. “All we can do is advocate for fair laws that are inclusive of all parties,” he said.

‘Show stoppers’

Rep. John Gannon (D), a member of the bill’s conference committee, cited several areas of disagreement.

Those include provisions that would let police conduct saliva testing to check drivers’ impairment and stop drivers for not wearing seat belts. Gannon called those provisions important to keeping roads safe, since the state expects “more impaired driving” with REC. 

But progressive Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D) called the saliva testing and seatbelt provisions “show-stoppers for many of us.” Besides invading privacy, the testing is ineffective at determining inebriation, he said. At this time, with police officers’ practices of racial discrimination under review, “why would we include another tool” they could use that could further exacerbate racial disparity, Zuckerman said.

‘No McDonald’s of cannabis’

Gannon called the coalition’s concerns about local and small growers “misplaced.” Provisions in the bill would allow the MED dispensaries to get licenses first partly because “they’re already set up to do retail,” he said. “So it makes a lot of logical sense.”

He discounted the possibility for “a McDonald’s of cannabis [to] come in and set up multiple locations” in Vermont since the legislation would limit entities to one license. “They need to understand that we’re at a point where the Senate and the House have to reach an agreement,” he said of the coalition. “Conference committee is not the time to make major modifications to a bill.”

Provisions in the versions also prioritize small growers for licenses, aiming to encourage new growers and bring unlicensed growers into the legal market with state assistance on developing business plans, for instance, he said.

While expungement of records related to cannabis offenses is not in the bill, a separate bill addressing that issue has passed the senate and Gannon expects it to pass the house.

The house version includes provisions supported by Gov. Phil Scott, Gannon said, and “My hope is that he will sign it.” 

Scott has vetoed cannabis-related legislation before. In a statement when he signed legalization, he expressed “mixed emotions.” He noted his personal belief that “what adults do behind closed doors and on private property is their choice, so long as it does not negatively impact the health and safety of others, especially children.” He also threatened to veto any future REC legislation that lacked “comprehensive and convincing plans” on education, prevention and highway safety strategies.

Perfect vs now?

Lt. Gov. Zuckerman, an organic farm owner who first ran for the Vermont House in 1994 as a University of Vermont student, made cannabis reform a top issue when he was elected as a state representative in 1996. He has served in the state’s House and Senate and is now running for governor in the November election. He recalls the state legislature legalizing MED in 2003, with a Republican majority House and a Republican governor who let it become law without signing.

Zuckerman said he’d like to support smaller grows and that the proposed legislation mostly moves in that direction. He knows of objections that it allows operations that are too big, but “I don’t think that’s true,” he said. 

The proposal’s not perfect, he said. But “we’ve already missed a prime opportunity for Vermont to be a leader” in the field. He noted that the next governor would implement it and said he aims to favor Vermont’s small craft operations, “rather than the John Boehner corporate takeovers.”

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