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News Update: S.54 – What Happened This Week And Where Is It Going?

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Kathryn Blume 14 Feb 2020

S.54, the bill to establish a commercial adult use cannabis market in Vermont, is in its second year of development here in the latter half of the current legislative biennium.

The bill, sponsored by Senators Richard Sears, Timothy Ashe, Joseph Benning, Christopher Pearson, John Rodgers, and Jeanette White passed the Senate last year, and sat in the House Ways and Means Committee when the legislative session concluded in May.

The bill left the House Ways and Means committee on February 4, 2020 and spent a packed week in the House Appropriations committee – a week, by the way, which was also marked by the Governor’s veto (and the Senate’s override of the veto) of the minimum wage bill. 

On Wednesday, February 12, the committee took testimony from Rep. Janet Ancel, Chair of Ways and Means, who shared her committee’s amendments, which primarily had to do with taxes (14% excise tax, 6% sales tax).

The GovOps amendment requires towns to Opt In rather than Opt Out of hosting cannabis establishments. This is a position we rigorously oppose.

They also added some language around the Cannabis Regulation Fund, disbursal of fees – which they would like to be commensurate with the fees charged in Massachusetts.

Additionally, the committee took testimony with Rep. John Gannon from Government Operations around the timeline for the rollout of Vermont S.54 should it pass.

Our big issue here is that they’ve added what we consider to be low THC limits

Rep. Gannon also shared some of his committee’s amendments, which, in summary, relate to: 

  • The makeup of Cannabis Control Board and its Advisory Committee
  • Licenses – and in particular promoting small cultivators
  • Local Control
    • The GovOps amendment requires towns to Opt In rather than Opt Out of hosting cannabis establishments. This is a position we rigorously oppose.
  • Advertising
  • Consumer Protection and Health. Our big issue here is that they’ve added what we consider to be low THC limits, including:
    • “A packaged cannabis product may not contain more than 100 mg of THC unless it is a topical preparation or other non-consumable product. Products must be labeled in a manner that states the number of servings of tetrahydrocannabinol in the product, measured in servings of a maximum of 5 milligrams per serving.” 
    • “cannabis flower with greater than 30 percent tetrahydrocannabinol” 
    • “solid concentrate cannabis products with greater than 60 percent tetrahydrocannabinol”
  • Some environmental provisions, including:
    • “Cannabis establishments shall not be regulated as ‘farming’ under the Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) or other State law. 
    • “Cannabis produced from cultivation shall not be considered an agricultural product or agricultural crop for the purposes of Use Value Appraisal or any sales tax exemption.”

As we noted in our last exploration of S.54, the reason for not regulating cannabis establishments as farming has to do with some very specific pre-existing statutes. The language is still a little murky and while we don’t think it upends the ability of farmers to grow cannabis, we do think it should be reconsidered for unintended consequences.

They added language around saliva testing, which we are strongly opposed to because it doesn’t actually work as a measurement of cannabis impairment – though this is a make-or-break issue for Governor Scott.

  • Highway Safety
    • They added language around saliva testing, which we are strongly opposed to because it doesn’t actually work as a measurement of cannabis impairment – though it is a make-or-break issue for Governor Scott.
      • “Evidentiary saliva tests are added to the implied consent statute in the same manner as blood tests. Drivers are deemed to have given consent to the evidentiary testing of their saliva if law enforcement has reason to believe they are operating under the influence. Law enforcement must obtain a warrant for the test, just as they must obtain a warrant for an evidentiary blood test.”
  • Money Provisions
    • This is about funding the CCB and where tax revenue goes.

On Thursday, February 13, they took testimony from Stephanie Barrett from the Vermont Joint Legislative Fiscal Office who talked about the specific costs of the amendments from GovOps, and provided a Fund Impact Summary.

We disagree that cannabis use is a “significant public health problem.” However we do recognize that minors using cannabis is still a public health concern.

On Friday, February 14, they took testimony from Kelly Dougherty, Deputy Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health. Her key points were:

  • Marijuana use is a significant public health problem in Vermont, and it is getting worse 
  • The Department of Health is the expert on evidence-based prevention strategies that can be successful in Vermont 
  • Although we know what works to prevent substance use, we lack the resources to implement strategies statewide

We disagree that cannabis use is a “significant public health problem.” However we do recognize that minors using cannabis is still a public health concern. 

They also took testimony from Legislative Counsel Michelle Childs, who talked about appropriations-related provisions of the GovOps/Ways and Means amendments.

It’s important to remember that before S.54 goes to a vote in the full legislature, it will go to a conference committee comprised of Senators from Judiciary and Representatives from Government Operations. 

There’s potentially a little bit more back and forth coming up, but then the bill will go to a floor vote in the House.

It’s important to remember that before S.54 goes to a vote in the full legislature, it will go to a conference committee comprised of Senators from Judiciary and Representatives from Government Operations. 

The job of this committee is to reconcile the different versions of the bill. This, by the way, is a great time to share comments and concerns about various aspects of the legislation. We don’t yet know who will be responsible for the reconciliation process, but we will definitely share their contact information once we find out.

Once S.54 passes out of the conference committee, it goes to the full legislature for a vote.

If the bill passes, and the Governor doesn’t veto, the process of establishing the adult use market will kick into gear on June 1 with the appointment of members to the Cannabis Control Board Nominating Committee.

If the bill dies in committee, isn’t passed by the legislature, or Governor Scott vetoes it without a veto-proof majority, then the bill will be scrapped, and the legislature will have to start completely fresh next year at the beginning of the next biennium in 2021.

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