Act 164 may bring retail cannabis to Middlebury

By Aidan Wertz

Lucy Townend
Currently, Vermont has only five cannabis dispensaries, all of which only offer products to consumers with a state-issued card for medical marijuana use.

Town residents will determine this coming week if retail cannabis stores can open in Middlebury. The provision on the March 3 ballot is part of a comprehensive regulatory cannabis bill that passed the Vermont Senate in October 2020 and would allow towns to opt-in to permitting cannabis stores within town limits. Vermont is the second state to pass such a bill through elected officials rather than a referendum.

Addison County High Bailiff Dave Silberman has been involved with legalization efforts in Vermont since 2015. He believes that Act 164, while not perfect, has the potential to boost Vermont’s small business economy and more.

“We produced a bill that is Vermont-scale and favors small businesses,” he said. “It makes it almost impossible for corporate consolidation, it requires a lot of public disclosure, and it will hopefully pave the way for people who have been historically disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition to enter this industry and thrive in it, should they choose to.”

A vote in favor of the provision would allow for the opening of a retail cannabis store in Middlebury, which would be able to sell products to customers aged 21 and over as soon as fall of 2022. The law does not allow for on-site consumption of cannabis. 

A vote against the provision would mean that Middlebury will not be able to open a retail cannabis store, though others may open in other parts of the state.

One of the largest coalitions in support of Middlebury’s opt-in vote is the business community.  Twenty-one Middlebury businesses, ranging from breweries to coffee shops, bookstores to the Marquis Theater signed a letter of support for the vote through the “MiddYes” campaign.

“Replacing illegal sales with a regulated retail storefront will benefit our town … by attracting more customers to all downtown stores and restaurants, thereby making Middlebury’s downtown more vibrant and active,” the letter of support states. 

Many of these businesses are located in Middlebury’s downtown, where a cannabis retail store would likely be established if the vote passes. 

Downtown has long been a focus of Middlebury’s developmental efforts as empty storefronts offer visible evidence of economic woes. Not unlike other small towns, Middlebury’s businesses have been facing difficulties due to the increasing prevalence of online retail and corporate consolidation —  struggles that have only worsened due to Covid-19 restrictions and the recent construction downtown

Supporters of retail cannabis in Middlebury believe that getting a head start on the opt-in provision would attract neighboring communities to Middlebury’s downtown, since Vergennes and Salisbury are the only other nearby areas also voting on the provision.

The opt-in provision is about more than just business, however. As long as cannabis legalization has been an issue, concerns about public safety and underage usage have percolated. 

The United Way of Addison County (UWAC), an organization pushing for a diverse platform of  social change in the area, has not yet taken a stance on the upcoming vote. Instead, it has worked to keep Vermonters informed. Director of Prevention Jesse Brooks provided some statistics in an email to The Campus indicating high drug usage among the state’s young adults.

Citing the 2016-17 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Brooks noted that among 18- to 25-year olds, Vermont ranked first in estimated illicit drug use and alcohol use within the past 30 days. When expanding that period to a year, Vermont ranked first in both cocaine and marijuana use for 18- to 25-year olds.

The 2019 survey noted that Vermonters aged 12 to 17 reported 14.5% in 30-day marijuana use, which is more than twice the national average of 6.8%.

On the other hand, proponents of retail cannabis note that legalization may not impact — and may even decrease — underage consumption. According to a study linked on the MiddYes webpage, it is possible that marijuana use among young people may actually decline if the substance is legalized for recreational purposes.  

Addison County Sheriff Peter D. Newton made his opinion clear in a recent letter to the editor at The Addison Independent. 

“I do not feel cannabis itself is a gateway drug. It should be well regulated in how it is grown… altering it is where it leads to problems,” he wrote. “I would rather see it sold in a store where it can be monitored, taxed and regulated than sold on the street corner or down on the green.”

Silberman hopes that college students may factor into the vote. Students are able to vote in elections as residents of Middlebury and are a historically underrepresented segment of municipal elections. 

Students can register at https://olvr.vermont.gov/, up to and on the day of the election or request an absentee ballot by emailing [email protected]