MONTPELIER, Vt. — Since the legislature last met, Vermonters cast ballots for Bernie (who’s got an “A” rating from the Marijuana Policy Project for his support to re-schedule cannabis at the federal level), and had plenty of time to catch up with their state representatives. Having passed in the Vermont Senate, S.241 now hits the House for further debate and review.
As advocates well know, there’s the bill itself, and then there’s the political process and the behind-the-scenes wrangling, which will start in the House Judiciary Committee. Unlike the Senate, who started the S.241 process last session and continued through the fall via the Government Ops subcommittee, most House members haven’t spent a ton of time getting familiar with the details.
Another key element moving forward is the leadership void in the House compared to the Senate. The Senate had a few crucial champions and key supporters, including Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), whose Northeast Kingdom libertarian creds helped strengthen the otherwise left-leaning coalition of supporters who didn’t even include the President of the Senate John Campbell, himself a Dem.
On more than a few occasions, Speaker Shap Smith — who before last year hadn’t really made cannabis a priority, and theoretically has even less need to make deals now as a non-candidate and lame duck — has taken every chance to note that he’s skeptical of the support and with good reason. Not because it isn’t there, but because other than a few stalwarts like Chris Pearson (D/P-Burlington), who went as far as to introduce alcohol prohibition legislation, it’s hard to pick out too many other pols caucusing with Mary Jane.
Even if all the progressives and left-leaning Democrats line up and bring along friends, there are enough moderate Democrats who are leaning ‘no,’ and Republican ‘no way’ votes, that it’s going to take a strong and diverse coalition to push S.241 through the House.
The bill itself has some interesting updates. Here are a few:
- We’re now calling it cannabis, a marked change in vernacular. Marijuana is still more familiar, but it’s a term rooted in past-century racism, so advocates have pushed for use of the scientific synonym.
- Edibles are still off the market. However, topical cannabis-infused products would be allowed. The definition of “marijuana’ itself was actually re-defined to not include stalks or fiber, seed, or any derivative — that closes any loophole and allows for CBD-only plants to be legally extracted into CBD-only oils, a precursor to eventually extracting THC.
- Possessing under an ounce will have no penalty, but there will be $100 tickets issued for consuming in public. Speaking of police, this phrase jumped out on page 46/47: “A law enforcement officer is authorized to detain a person if: (A) the officer has reasonable grounds to believe the person has violated subsection (b) of this section; and the person refuses to identify himself or herself satisfactorily to the officer when requested by the officer.”
- The bill does NOT “create a cause of action against an employer that discharges an employee for violating a policy that restricts or prohibits the use of marijuana by employees.”
We’re now calling it cannabis, a marked change in vernacular.
- The bill explicitly outlaws extraction by anyone other than a dispensary, unless it’s by vegetable glycerin. No butane, co2 or other gas extraction methods may be used by an unlicensed party.
- As has been the case all along, local municipalities would be able to ban or allow cannabis businesses and they’d also be able to create their own local commissions.
- Advertising would be tightly controlled, including a ban on any that “represents that the use of marijuana has curative or therapeutic effects.”
- There would be a governmental Marijuana Advisory Board created that includes the commissioner of public safety, secretary of agriculture, commissioner of health, commissioner of taxes, and a member of local law enforcement appointed by the governor.
- License reviews will start in April 2017, but applicants will need to pay a nonrefundable fee based on the size and type of the operation; in addition to the application, there would also be a yearly fee. In July 2018, the following licenses may be issued:
- Ten (10) cultivator licenses up to 1,000 square feet; $3,000 application/$3,000 annual fee
- Four (4) cultivator licenses 1,001-2,500 square feet; $7,500 application/ $7,500 annual fee
- Ten (10) cultivation licenses 2,501-5000 square feet; $15,000 application/$15,000 annual fee
- Three (3) cultivator licenses 5,001-10,000 square feet; $30,000 application fee/$30,000 annual fee
- Five (5) Testing Lab Licenses $500 application fee; $2,500 annual fee
- Fifteen (15) retailer licenses; $15,000 application fee; $15,000 annual fee
- To help enact all of this, a temporary Marijuana Program Review Commission would be formed, which would create a Marijuana Regulation and Resource Fund. That review commission would include:
- Four members of the public appointed by the Governor
- One member of the House of Representatives
- One member of the Senate
- The Attorney General (or designee)
- That commission would be the group who would consider the really interesting policy questions, including home grown, edibles, cooperative models, other kinds of licenses, and local excise taxes. The group would issue a report to the General Assembly by October 2017.
- In a nod to their experience, the existing dispensaries would more or less have carte blanche for any kind of legal operation or business, part of why they’d be allowed to transition from nonprofit to for-profit businesses that “shall have a sliding-scale fee system that takes into account a registered patient’s ability to pay.”
- New executive branch positions would be created, including in the departments of Health, Taxes, Public Safety, Agriculture, and the newly-created Director of the Marijuana Program Review Commission.
- A new testing lab would be created within the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets which shall establish fees for “providing agricultural, environmental, and other necessary testing services at the request of private individuals and State agencies.”