Three Lessons from the First Joint Legislative Marijuana Meeting of 2017
MONTPELIER — As Heady Vermont reported earlier this month, in anticipation of another legal debate in the legislature, an influential group of Vermont lawmakers is hosting meetings in Montpelier to discuss the various issues surrounding marijuana legalization. The first meeting took place on Monday, September 12 at the State House.
The Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee–formerly, Corrections–meets again this Friday, September 23 at the State House where they will focus on Medical Marijuana. The committee is made up of a combination of House and Senate leaders, including six Democrats, three Republicans, and one Progressive (Rep. Sandy Haas; Sen. Tim Ashe is a combined D/P), and include several committee chairs and legislative power brokers who will likely win re-election in November.
In addition to the 10 elected representatives, the attendees to last week’s session included lobbyists (the Vermont Cannabis Trade Alliance, dispensaries, law enforcement, health care, and the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project), a television outlet and Terri Hallenbeck of Seven Days (who earlier this week wrote a recap of the event highlighting lack of medical marijuana access for patients).
1. Legislators appreciate that legalization is becoming a bigger — not smaller — issue.
Massachusetts and Maine will have binding ballot initiatives up for a vote this November — Heady Vermont is reporting on the Freedom Rally in Boston this past weekend and NECANN-Portland in October — but because the Vermont Constitution (still) forbids binding referendums, the legislature will be the only way to reform the Vermont cannabis laws in the near future.
Advocates are adding extra grassroots boots around the state, and throughout statewide races, marijuana questions continue to play a role, most recently in the Lieutenant Governor debate featuring David Zuckerman and Randy Brock. As VTDigger’s Jasper Craven reported, during that WDEV debate, Zuckerman responded to Brock’s accusation of being too tax-happy by telling host Mike Smith that it was fiscally prudent, and later noted that taxed and regulated marijuana could add much-needed revenue without adding additional taxes.
On the joint legislative committee itself, Representative Alice Emmons acknowledged that the policy dialogue had advanced: “I think this testimony is at a very different level than what we started to hear last fall — as they say, the devil is in the details, a year ago was more of a broader concept.”
2. Banking is still a big, and legitimate concern.
One of themes of the testimony — by those both in favor and opposition of legalization — was the difficulty of marijuana businesses banking. For opponents, it’s a reason to wait longer for legalization. However, as the out-of-state witnesses testified, clearly other states are finding solutions to sell cannabis and pay taxes and for services — even if extremely inconvenient.
The most constructive testimony about banking came from Director Rick Garza of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, who advised the Vermont committee: “One way to get financial services in your state is to have a rigorous licensing process in your licensure, that will guarantee more oversight and the bank.”
Garza noted that marijuana companies in his state can bank at three regional credit unions and several local banks. He explained that this is due to the fact that during the application process, Washington marijuana companies must disclose very detailed personal and financial background information, basically ensuring that the information in the application already goes above and beyond standard bank requirements, and gives those financial institutions in his state the comfort to bank with marijuana companies.
3. Homegrow advocates have been heard, but how they’ll fit in remains to be determined.
Several times, Senator Dick Sears explicitly mentioned the consternation of constituents who support legalization, but were vocally unsatisfied with the lack of home grow in S.241. Unfortunately for advocates, the narrative of ‘marijuana advocates don’t all agree’ is largely based in reality, here and in every state.
Legalization supporters of differing stripes agree that homegrow should be allowed, but it’s a question of priority: Some would take criminal reforms and a taxed and regulated system if it meant waiting on homegrow; to others it’s anathema to everything they believe in, and a question of constitutional liberties.
Most of the majority of Vermonters who support legalization–and some who oppose it–would agree that homegrowers should be allowed to seed their own stash for personal use.
However, if homegrowers want to sell their artisanal marijuana buds and products to the public, regulations will require them to have pot tested for both potency and potential pesticides.
The idea of cooperatives for small producers was discussed in some legislative committees in 2016 and in some detail in the 2015 Vermont Cannabis Collaborative report. As with all of the state’s small and medium businesses that work with agriculture, finding the balance of regulation and market access will be crucial for homegrowers wishing to participate in a future legal cannabis economy.
If homegrow advocates can work with–and not against–legalization advocates who argue for regulation, their best shot at finding legal liberty to grow will be to convince lawmakers that growing at home will shrink–not grow–the illicit market in Vermont and neighboring states.
During the Committee’s next meeting on Friday, September 23, the discussion will center around medical marijuana, hearing testimony in the morning from all three executive directors from the state’s medical dispensary system. In the afternoon, the committee will hear testimony from Dr. Kalev Freeman, Md. of the University of Vermont and Director Jeffrey Wallin of the Department of Public Safety.