What’s Next for New England?
Special thanks to David Silberman, Jarred Moffat and Matt Simon, who contributed reporting and interviews for this article. Originally published in the 2019 New England Cannabis Guide, available across the northeast now!
For years, cannabis legalization was largely dominated by the western states, and all was fairly quiet on the New England front. Then, both Massachusetts and Maine burst onto the national scene with the passage of referendums in 2016. New England’s historically independent character has meant that as geographically compact as the region is, legalization has taken very different forms from state to state.
After the good people of the Commonwealth voted to legalize pot in 2016, Massachusetts’ first retail shops opened in late 2018– there are currently 15, with more on the way. They have an independent Cannabis Control Commission, tasked with “safely, equitably and effectively implementing and administering the laws enabling access to medical and adult use” cannabis.
The medical program allows for a maximum of 35 dispensaries, which currently serve more than 50,000 registered patients. Cannabis sales topped $100 million in the first six months of adult use, allowing the state to collect $2.9 million in sales taxes and $5 million from the cannabis excise tax. That number doesn’t reflect any local taxes collected by cities and towns. Cannabis cafes will soon be up and running across the state.
Regulators are paying attention to making microbusiness licenses available to help residents launch smaller cannabis companies, and the CCC has a number of inclusivity programs designed to engage and promote the participation of people from communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition.
CBD-wise, however, the state is in a bit of a pickle. In June 2019, the Department of Agricultural Resources, which oversees and regulates the hemp program, outlawed food products with CBD, CBD products making therapeutic claims, anything which uses hemp as a dietary supplement, and animal feed containing hemp.
The newly formed Massachusetts Hemp Coalition is in an understandable uproar, but as of press time for the Guide in late June, no changes have been made to the regulations. The cost for hemp growers and processors isn’t bad: $100 non-refundable license application fee, then $300 a year to maintain a license. A combined license to be both a grower and a processor costs $500 a year.
Surrounded on every side by states that have legalized cannabis for adult use, New Hampshire is quickly becoming a lone island in a sea of pot-friendly states. The Granite State has three medical dispensaries, and medical patients are not allowed to grow their own. The bill which would allow home grow just passed the legislature, but the current Governor, Chris Sununu, isn’t extremely cannabis-friendly – though he’s been better on medical – and it’s not clear whether or not he’ll sign.
Out-of-state patients are allowed to possess 3⁄4 of an ounce within state borders if they have a valid card, and something documenting that they have one of New Hampshire’s qualifying medical conditions (basically a note from their doctor).
On the CBD front, the rules are very unclear and CBD in food and beverages seems to be left to individual towns. As of this publication, the New Hampshire town of Rochester just cracked down and banned all CBD products, and all the local businesses carrying it shut down. Whether or not the state will be able to pass adult use with a tax and regulate market will depend on a number of factors.
The House recently passed a bill by a pretty good margin, but it’s been held up in the Senate, which is more divided. Because the Governor is strongly opposed to legalization, and there isn’t a 2⁄3 majority in either the House or Senate, it’ll take a new Governor, an old Governor with an evolving perspective, or powerful profit numbers from neighboring states to change the tide. In regards to hemp, the state has punted to federal guidelines and hasn’t issued any growing permits.
Cannabis advocates had high hopes for New England’s smallest state this year, optimistic that Rhode Island would follow in the footsteps of its neighbor to the north and legalize adult use cannabis. But just before this magazine went to print in late June, advocates were disappointed when state lawmakers left out recreational cannabis from the budget, deciding only to add six medical marijuana dispensaries, or, as Rhode Island calls them, compassion centers.
Last winter, Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget included a plan to legalize adult use cannabis (with the support of the head of the State Police), allowing the possession, use and sale of the plant. However, the prohibition of homegrowing and other restrictions in the plan polarized advocates who were supportive of the governor’s intentions, but disappointed it didn’t include the personal freedoms afforded the state’s northern neighbor in Massachusetts.
Legislative leadership have stated a need to slowly build up the infrastructure of the medical program before they tackle adult use legalization.
There is some chance for legalization next year. Legislative leadership have stated a need to slowly build up the infrastructure of the medical program before they tackle adult use legalization. There’s no strong prevailing argument why they prefer a stately pace, just an expressed preference.
Of course, local media has been paying attention to the fact that there are questionable connections between the legislature and the existing medical industry, and it’s worth noting that by serving 20,000 patients in the Rhode Island medical program, and tens of thousands of others from out of state, the compassion centers already have a virtual monopoly on cannabis sales and have had no great incentive to pursue legalization.
On the CBD front, the new budget will create a more straightforward process for regulation and licensing the entire arc of seed to sale. The Department of Environmental Management is responsible for overseeing growers, while sales and distribution are the responsibility of the Department of Business Regulation. Agricultural hemp fees are much stiffer in Rhode Island than in other surrounding states. There’s a $2500 license fee, criminal background checks of the growers, required lab testing, and a tagging/tracking system for what gets sold. Cultivators are not amused.
Maine’s cannabis landscape is actually fairly straightforward. Possession of small amounts of cannabis was decriminalized in 1976, and the first medical cannabis law passed in 1999. State residents voted in favor of legalizing cannabis in 2016, but, due in part to anti-cannabis Governor Paul LePage, who ran out his term in early 2019, actually creating and implementing the rules for a commercial market has been a long process.
Cannabis sales topped $100 million in the first six months of adult use in Massachusetts.
The newly inaugurated Governor Janet Mills, Maine’s very first female governor, signed off on a set of regulations this spring. The first retail stores will, ideally, be up and running by fall of 2019. Cannabis sales topped $100 million in the first six months of adult use in Massachusetts.
The plan limits licenses to grow and sell to people who have lived in the Pine Tree State – and filed income tax returns there – for four years. This rule will remain in effect until June 2021. Adults over 21 may possess up to 2-1⁄2 ounces on their person, and cultivate up to three mature plants either at their home, or with permission at another adult’s property. Individuals may register as a medical patient if their doctor believes cannabis will be helpful. Patients can get cannabis from registered dispensaries, registered caregivers, or grow their own. Out of state patients are allowed to purchase at dispensaries.
With regards to CBD, there was some confusion after the federal farm bill passed, with the state attempting to implement ban on CBD products. After a great deal of backlash, the legislature quickly passed a law legalizing the sale of CBD – with the caveat that sellers can’t claim their products are capable of diagnosing or treating any illness or condition unless that claim has been approved by federal law. Growing hemp is, of course, legal, and the fees to register with the state are very low, with a $100 application fee, a $500 license fee, and a $50/acre fee.
Vermont’s legislature has been getting closer to fully legalizing cannabis every year since 2016, when the state Senate passed S.241, the first bill attempting to regulate commercial production and sale. Unfortunately, that bill fell well short in the House. In January 2018, the Legislature passed a bill legalizing possession and home grow (two mature, four immature plants), which was reluctantly signed by the Governor behind closed doors and went into effect July 1, 2018.
This year, a tax-and-regulate bill – S.54 – passed the Senate, and began receiving committee hearings in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, House leadership was not keen on passing that bill, and in spite of a similar bill having over 50 sponsors across all three major parties, it was held up in committee as the legislative session drew to a close.
It should be noted that Governor Phil Scott has stated on numerous occasions that he won’t sign a tax-and-regulate bill that doesn’t include funding for roadside impairment testing – even though there is not yet a verifiable test that provides proof of real-time cannabis impairment.
After the session ended, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, who has been on the fence about a regulated cannabis market, acknowledged in a radio interview that S.54 has majority support in the House, and promised that she would not block its passage in early 2020. Majority Leader Jill Krowinski said in a televised interview that the bill will be a “priority” for the Democratic caucus when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2020.
On a positive note, the Legislature has kept criminal justice reform and social justice at the center of the discussion, and did pass an expungement reform bill making it easier for people with old drug-related felonies to clear their records. Beyond that, the tax-and-regulate bill explicitly states that people with prior criminal convictions of any type cannot be denied licenses or employment permits in the cannabis industry unless the regulatory authority determines that they pose a current threat to public safety.
The Agency of Agriculture has made obtaining a hemp permit cheap and easy, even before the 2019 Farm Bill passed earlier this year, fully legalizing industrial hemp production.
On the CBD front, things are looking pretty sunny. The Agency of Agriculture has made obtaining a hemp permit cheap and easy, even before the 2019 Farm Bill passed earlier this year, fully legalizing industrial hemp production. Initially, it was only $25 to obtain a hemp license. This resulted in an exponential explosion of small hemp cultivators across the state. New rules establish that growing fees will be tiered by the size of the area being cultivated, and start at $50/acre for less than half an acre, $500 for 10 to 50 acres, and $1500 for more than 50 acres. Companies or individuals that process hemp to make hemp-infused products would have to pay $1,500 under the new proposal.
Vermont’s regulatory approach to hemp makes it easy for growers, processors, and retailers to produce and sell a wide variety of CBD products, and you’ll even see CBD vendors at many local farmers markets.
In the big picture, Vermont’s small size, agricultural roots, and success with independent beer and spirits give the state an opportunity to regulate cannabis with family farms and craft production at the forefront. S.54, in this spirit, would authorize a preferred class of small-scale “craft” cultivation licenses with low fees, early access to the market and a reduced regulatory burden, to encourage a small-scale, distributed cultivation model.
Connecticut decriminalized cannabis possession in 2011, making possession of a half-ounce or less a civil violation, punishable by a fine of up to $150. Subsequent offenses are subject to increased fines, and anyone under 21 who is found in possession of less than a half-ounce faces a 60-day suspension of their driver’s license.
During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers developed a plan to legalize adult use and retail sales. Various versions of legalization bills pertaining to legalization, expungement, and distribution of tax revenue were approved in committee, and negotiations to create a single omnibus bill began between the Legislature and Governor Ned Lamont. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough support to advance the proposal, and legislators are now looking at placing the issue on the ballot next year in the form of a constitutional amendment.
Polling suggests that Connecticut residents strongly support legalizing cannabis and expunging criminal records for low-level offenses.
Polling suggests that Connecticut residents strongly support legalizing cannabis and expunging criminal records for low-level offenses. Many legislative leaders – and Gov. Ned Lamont – do support legalizing and regulating cannabis, and experts believe the process will eventually be successful. Connecticut has 18 medical dispensaries, though the list of qualifying conditions is limited and doesn’t include common issues like chronic pain.
CBD products are legal in Connecticut, though anything sold over the counter, rather than at a dispensary, isn’t subject to regulation. Connecticut also just started its hemp program, and the first license was issued in early June, 2019, with dozens more on the way. Licenses are fairly modest at $50 for the application, $50 per acre of planned hemp plantings, $50 inspection fee (if necessary), and a $50 per acre site modification fee.