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Vermont Cannabis Organization Meetup: What’s Going On In Montpelier

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Kathryn Blume 28 Jan 2020

The Vermont Cannabis Organization recently hosted its second meetup of cannabis growers, makers, appreciators, and cannacurious individuals at Mary’s restaurant in Bristol.

The theme of the event was “What’s Going On In Montpelier” with particular emphasis on S.54, the bill to establish a commercial cannabis market currently being worked on in the Statehouse. 

The format of the gathering was a panel discussion and Q&A with some of the state’s most engaged and well-informed cannabis advocates, including Tim Fair and Andrew Subin from Vermont Cannabis Solutions, pro-bono drug policy reform advocate Dave Silberman, Vermont Coalition To Regulate Marijuana executive director Laura Subin, consultant and Vermontijuana blogger (and former Heady Vermont co-founder) Eli Harrington, and Lt. Governor (and gubernatorial candidate) Dave Zuckerman.

Each panelist made a few brief remarks and then the group took questions from the attendees.

“Some people talk about putting [the Cannabis Control Board] under the Agency of Agriculture, and in a perfect world, that could be an ideal solution. But because it’s illegal federally, and the Agency of Agriculture gets federal funds, this could be a problematic situation.”

Tim Fair spoke about the sense of anxiety in the cannabis community coming from the fact that the Senate has passed a tax and regulate bill every year for the last 4 years, but at this point, we still don’t have a commercial industry, and people don’t know what’s going to happen.

Fair noted that while S.54 is not a perfect bill, and there are many concerns from the cannabis community about different aspects of the legislation, part of its value is that it establishes an independent Cannabis Control Board.

“Some people talk about putting it under the Agency of Agriculture,” said Fair, “and in a perfect world, that could be an ideal solution. But because it’s illegal federally, and the Agency of Agriculture gets federal funds, this could be a problematic situation.”

A Cannabis Control Board, he said, would be “insulated from federal intervention and breaking federal law.”

“We would also like to see delivery services, which are a low barrier to entry. We don’t want to see big marijuana come in. No MedMen.”

Fair also spoke about elements of S.54 towards which he’s positively disposed, including provisions for small-scale cultivation, which would let local growers produce legally, sell to dispensaries, and “generate legitimate revenue.”

Fair would also like to see permits for social use events and the promotion of various forms of canna-tourism, including weddings, B&Bs, and snowshoeing and biking tours, biking tours.

“We would also like to see delivery services, which are a low barrier to entry. We don’t want to see big marijuana come in. No MedMen.”

Fair’s opposition to larger corporate participation in Vermont’s cannabis industry is another reason why he’s eager to see S.54 pass.

“The longer it takes,” he said, “the more resources get sapped. The more likely we are to have large marijuana come in.”

“The sky hasn’t fallen. The worst fears haven’t come to light. A lot of people testified that it’s improved their quality of life. They don’t have to hide, and can be part of the community. Back decks of parties can now come forward, and we can treat this plant like a plant.”

Eli Harrington noted that despite the challenges of passing S.54, ending prohibition was a “moral imperative,” and that many of the questions surrounding legalization have been answered. 

“The sky hasn’t fallen,” said Harrington. “The worst fears haven’t come to light. A lot of people testified that it’s improved their quality of life. They don’t have to hide, and can be part of the community. Back decks of parties,” he added, “can now come forward, and we can treat this plant like a plant.”

Looking ahead to establishing a commercial market, Harrington noted that “there are going to be growing pains no matter how we do it” and that “this being an election year, and having complicated, tri-partisan state government, it’s not going to be a perfect bill.”

“The question is,” said Harrington, “who gets the money, in what order, and in what way? This is going to be,” he said, ”a multi-year process. Federal prohibition is going to end, and ten years from now, things are going to look very different no matter what.”

“As years roll by, and we see good and bad, we have an opportunity to pick policies that work and do it on a Vermont scale.”

Dave Silberman talked about having worked on pro-bono drug reform since 2016. Despite the various iterations of the commercial legalization bills that he’s seen, the prevailing question has always been about “how to make a cannabis market work in Vermont for Vermonters, and avoid the problems that we’ve seen in other states.”

“As years roll by, and we see good and bad,” said Silberman, “we have an opportunity to pick policies that work and do it on a Vermont scale.”

Silberman noted that the legislature has done a fairly good job of “limiting damage from prohibitionists” as well as having had to work with the political reality of a Governor who keeps saying, “Not now.” Although, said Silberman, “now the Governor is saying he wants to spend the money twice over.”

“Growing cannabis in the Vermont sun is agriculture and should be treated as such. It’s not an industrial activity subject to heavy regulatory burden.”

Part of what Silberman likes about S.54 is that it gives preferences to existing growers, dairy farmers, and people in agriculture. “If you want to get in as a small scale grower,” he said, “section 904A grants exceptions to regulatory requirements.”

Silberman said that there’s an increasing recognition among legislators that “growing cannabis in the Vermont sun is agriculture and should be treated as such. It’s not,” he said, “an industrial activity subject to heavy regulatory burden.”

Silberman also pointed out  a few common misconceptions about S.54, including the notion that it only allows for 500 square foot operations. The bill, he says, “has special provision for small scale, but doesn’t limit grows to 500 square feet.”

He addressed concerns about outside money coming in by reflecting that there are strict ownership limits for permits, preventing chains of stores. “The MedMen of the world,” he said,“won’t be able to come in and make all the money.”

“If legislation passes, all Vermont statutes would use the word cannabis, not marijuana.”

Laura Subin, who has been working actively on cannabis policy reform since 2014, spoke about how heartening it is “to see how far we’ve come.” 

She said that achieving legalization was a huge step, and reflected on the fact that the name of her organization is now seen as politically incorrect. “If legislation passes, she said,” all Vermont statutes would use the word cannabis, not marijuana,” which was a racist slang term.

“We’re conscious, she said, “of language and history.”

Subin spoke about the importance of keeping criminal justice reform at the front of all conversations, especially “as people make a lot of money off something people have gone to jail for. Especially people of color.” 

“People may not know when we legalized the small amounts we did, none of the other penalties were adjusted. Criminal sanctions above legal limits are still draconian.” 

Subin also called out the imperfect process of legalization. “People may not know,” she said, “when we legalized the small amounts we did, none of the other penalties were adjusted. Criminal sanctions above legal limits are still draconian.” 

Subin said there are currently two bills in the House and Senate that would make misdemeanor expungement automatic. “It’s hard to administer,” she said, “but it’s part of the moral imperative and addressing the ongoing collateral consequences of conviction.”

In the end, said Subin, “The public has an important role to play that demanding social justice gets attention it deserves.”

Andrew Subin, Vermont Cannabis Solutions cofounder (Laura Subin’s brother) spoke about coming to Vermont two years ago from Washington state, where adult use has been legal for almost five years.

“There’s a rush on stores at the beginning. The first two weeks are insane. Inventory sells out. Then it starts to normalize. After that, the successful businesses are successful. The ones who aren’t successful aren’t going to be successful.”

In particular, he described how cannabis “becomes an industry like any other. There’s a rush on stores at the beginning,” he said. “The first two weeks are insane. Inventory sells out. Then it starts to normalize. After that, the successful businesses are successful. The ones who aren’t successful aren’t going to be successful.” He added that it’s “clear in a matter of months who knows what they’re doing, and who’s in it for the right or wrong reasons.”

Subin also noted how important both money and experience are for success in the cannabis industry. “It’s going to come down,” he said, “to who’s got a good business plan, funding, and personnel.”

Subin explained that from his perspective, while there’s absolutely a place for small cannabis businesses in Vermont, “we’re going to be relying on money and expertise from people out west who’ve been doing it for 4-5 years.”

“We’ve talked about the ‘black market,’ but that also feeds into racist language around prohibition. I prefer ‘underground market.’”

With a national industry, he noted, Vermont will be competing with other states, and “it’s not going to work to keep everyone else out. We need out of staters to be our customers and collaborators.”

Lt. Governor Zuckerman spoke about working to reform cannabis laws since 1994 when he was a student at UVM, and seconded Laura Subin’s comment about language we use.

“We’ve talked about the ‘black market,’ but that,” he said, “also feeds into racist language around prohibition. I prefer ‘underground market.’”

Zuckerman also noted that when the War On Drugs started in late 60s under President Nixon, it was “a war on peace movement and civil rights movement. It’s important,” he said, “to recognize political impacts and how this plant has been used to exploit people. That feeds into myths people still have today.”

“Take the past underground market. Bringing that above ground shouldn’t be onerous and highly taxed – like when you have 2nd and 3rd party people in between. That’s why you have more regulation, when the consumer is farther from the producer.”

Zuckerman also warned against excessive regulation for the commercial cannabis market. “Do you want an economy that already exists to be safe and properly regulated,” he asked, “or completely underground?”

As perhaps befits a farmer, Zuckerman suggested a cooperative or CSA approach to commercial cannabis. “Take the past underground market. Bringing that above ground shouldn’t be onerous and highly taxed – like when you have 2nd and 3rd party people in between. That’s why you have more regulation,” he explained, “when the consumer is farther from the producer.”

Once the floor opened up for questions, many of them focused around the notion that S.54 limits small grows to 500 square feet and provides larger organizations like the dispensaries a corner on the commercial market – ideas that Silberman was quick to dispel.

“We got language there that is airtight on horizontal integration. It can’t happen.”

“This bill is set up to allow vertical integration,” said Siberman. “You can have multiple steps in the process of seed-to-sale. But it doesn’t allow horizontal integration. That’s monopoly. My background is as a corporate lawyer,” he assured the group. “We got language there that is airtight on horizontal integration. It can’t happen.”

Silberman also reiterated the fact that 500 square feet was a minimum size for a grow, not a maximum. “It’s the floor. It starts there and goes up. Anyone can apply for any size cultivation license.”

Addressing concerns about whether the dispensaries, which have special integrated licenses, would be allowed to sell in commercial market, Harrington explained that “we’re going to need dispensaries to participate, because they have facilities and capacity, and they’re already ready to go” but predicted that “integrated won’t exist forever.”

Harrington did express concerns about the composition of the Cannabis Control Board, the timing of how licenses are issued, and how we develop “a bureaucracy that works.”

“We need diversity in who’s appointing members of board. There’s a lot to be concerned about how the political process plays out. Be active, vocal, pay attention.”

Laura Subin noted that a Cannabis Control Board “has a lot of pluses and minuses,” explaining that it’s “easier to make changes if you don’t have to do through legislative process,” but that it leaves a lot of uncertainty around who gets on the CCB.

“We need diversity in who’s appointing members of board,” she said. “There’s a lot to be concerned about how the political process plays out. Be active, vocal, pay attention.”

Subin also offered up perspective on questions of timing by noting that “one of the issues at the forefront of every debate is that there are upfront costs. The legislature,” she said, “is very concerned about costs,” and starting with the dispensaries is the “quickest way to generate revenue we need to make this happen.”

“Most people in Vermont just want to know where they’re going to go buy weed.”

Lt. Governor Zuckerman responded to a question about the need for a taxed and regulated system at all by noting that the “Libertarian model is ok for those that have land, own their home, have the ability to produce their own.” However, he explained, “many people don’t own property, and have to go to the underground market. Who owns property? Disproportionately white people, people who’re already benefiting from society. People left behind,” he said, “still get left behind.”

When asked about the ability of towns to opt in or out of having cannabis businesses in their communities, Laura Subin explained that this was important to Governor Scott, and that right now S.54 requires opt-in for retail stores, but is silent on everything else. “This was a political compromise,” she said, “from the House Government Operations committee.”

For all the wrangling over legislative details, Harrington noted that “most people in Vermont just want to know where they’re going to go buy weed.”

 

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