Vermont’s Budding Industry: Next State to Tax & Regulate Cannabis?

By SADIE HOUSBERG

For those Vermonters advocating for a tax-and-regulate cannabis market, new legislation moving through both the House and the Senate could herald welcome changes.

A bill proposed by Representative Sam Young (D-Greensboro) on Friday, Feb. 8, would progressively implement a commercial marijuana market in the state of Vermont. H.196, an act relating to the regulation of cannabis and cannabis products for commercial and medical purposes, would permit adults to buy marijuana starting Jan. 1, 2020.

“It seems like there’s a lot more support of this bill than there has been in the past,” Rep. Young said. With 52 sponsors, many of whom are newly elected Democratic and Progressive representatives, Young is hopeful that H.196 will make it through the House.

Though legislation to establish a tax-and-regulate weed market has previously seen significant support in the Senate, according to Young this has not been the case in the House. He attributes much of the recent outpouring of support for H.196 to a “new generation” of members, referring to the majority Vermont Democrats in the Statehouse gained in last year’s midterm elections.

The relatively robust support for a tax-and-regulate market in the Senate is evident in the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee’s recent support of S.54, another act relating to the regulation of cannabis. On Friday, Feb. 15, the Judiciary Committee gave approval to the bill, which must now make its way through additional committees before becoming eligible for deliberation before the whole Senate.

“We think this bill is fundamentally what it should be: consumer protection legislation that will not only keep cannabis consumers safer but will also improve the public health and public safety of the state as a whole,” said Laura Subin, Director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana (VCRM), in testimony on Jan 30.

H.196 differs from the Senate bill because it would allow existing dispensaries to begin selling commercially under specific regulations before new companies can open while S.54 would not. In order to sell to get a foot in the market early and begin selling to the general public in advance of Jan. 1, 2020, current dispensaries would have to pay a $75,000 fee under the House measure.

Some hold, like Rep. Young, that establishing a commercial industry is important for Vermont’s economic health as well as its public safety.

“Massachusetts has it [a tax & regulate market] up and running,” he said. “So why should we send all of our tax dollars out of state when we have real needs here?”

The burgeoning retail marijuana industry is comprised of a relatively young workforce that could potentially bolster Vermont’s population, Young commented. According to the World Population Review, the current population of the Green Mountain State is declining at .12 percent per year.

“But my primary thinking behind sponsoring the bill,” Young clarified, “is to have a safe market because it [marijuana] is legal now. We need to have a safe and legal means for people to acquire it.”

Though Governor Scott has previously expressed that he does not believe Vermont is ready for tax-and-regulate market, Young is hopeful that H.196 could be successful with the negotiation of certain terms.

“I signed the legalization of marijuana. So it’s not as though I’m philosophically opposed,” Gov. Scott said in an interview with The Campus in October, 2018.

“I just think we need to do this right and we have an opportunity and an obligation to do it right.”

According to Scott, doing it right would require adequate education and prevention in schools as well as developing public safety infrastructure.

“I think [Gov. Scott] has laid out a clear plan for why he hasn’t supported a tax-and-regulate market in the past,” said Rep. Young. “He has been unwilling to support a bill without traffic safety and regulation so we’ll have to negotiate with him to make sure those things are in the final bill.”

Both recently introduced House and Senate measures have been met with some criticism based on similar criteria. Commissioner of Health Mark Levine testified before the Senate Committees on Health and Welfare regarding the Regulation of Cannabis in Vermont on Jan. 31, offering his perspective on S.54.

“As a physician and as a commissioner of the department charged with protecting and promoting the health of Vermonters, I have previously voiced my concerns about the use of marijuana and the potential increase in use as a result of a legalized and regulated market,” Levine said. Citing lessons learned from other states’ experience with the process, he made an example of the importance of establishing comprehensive prevention programming and funding in advance

“It is not only unacceptable but unconscionable to develop a legal marketplace for marijuana without establishing a dedicated revenue stream for education and prevention to protect public health and public safety,” Levine said.

The VCRM holds, however, that S.54 is aimed at improving the public health and safety of the whole state and could, Subin testified on Jan. 30, provide “a framework that will enable the emerging cannabis industry to be shaped in ways that reflect Vermont values.”

Rep. Young believes that leaving the market in its current state presents risks to the public health and safety of Vermonters that should not be ignored.

“The way we legalized it [marijuana] last year was to have people grow up to two plants – besides going to Massachusetts [to buy it] – and then we just left the black market intact,” he explained. “So, it’s this kind of grey area and it’s like no; we want the retailers of it [cannabis] to have a store whose products are tested and safe.”

According to Seven Days VT, in late January, federal, state and local law enforcement officers busted a Burlington business that had been illegally selling weed at its Church Street storefront. This is the kind of “grey area” Rep. Young believes the current laws around the legalization of marijuana create.

“Taxing and regulating marijuana is important for consumer safety so that people aren’t going out and buying product that has pesticides and mold,” Young explained.

On another note, a bill such as S.54, Subin explained in her Jan. 30 testimony, can contribute to criminal justice reform and other social justice goals.

“It also offers an opportunity to continue to address what is, to me, personally, the most important priority: the racial, social, and economic injustices that have been perpetuated during the prohibition era,” she said.

For the moment though, both H.196 and S.54 have some time in the House and the Senate respectively, before any final determinations are made.

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