The Cannabis Compromise of 2016
On Friday’s episode of Vermont Edition, House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) discussed his desire to see a House vote on the question of marijuana. He almost sounded supportive of cannabis when he told VPR’s Bob Kinzel: “I don’t want to see negative progress on the issue.”
That would be a nice political position for Shap Smith, the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor running against Kesha Ram and David Zuckerman, who’s been one of the state’s leading cannabis reform champions for over a decade.
I hope that Vermont voters will keep in mind that despite whatever Speaker/Candidate Smith might say in the eleventh hour, S.241 entered his purview in late February and today marked the first time that he offered vocal public support for some kind of progress. Whatever behind-the-scenes wrangling he might have been doing to support movement of cannabis reform obviously hasn’t worked either, so whether as Speaker or Candidate, Shap Smith’s late support needs to be viewed in a appropriate context.
The devil’s been in the details since last it became clear last summer that cannabis reform would get serious consideration during the 2016 session. Without a referendum that provides a yes/no option (but leaves little room for compromise once created), it is still upon the legislature to determine how cannabis reform works.
In Montpelier, there’s both a lack of the conviction needed to take a bold step, and a lack of trust in the arguments being presented by advocates on all sides, so to make it easy, I’ve outlined a compromise that can be passed today and bridge the apparent chasms between the House and Senate versions of cannabis reform.
So here’s the consensus and the compromise:
Vermont needs to start building a foundation upon which a cannabis economy can work. It is inevitably coming to our region, and while you might not agree that we need to be first, our state should not purposefully exclude itself while we watch millions go into Maine and Massachusetts.
However, we have considerable work to prepare to regulate an over-the-counter personal use system in May 2016. Although there are ways to control how (and where) people purchase and consume, we need to further consider how that economy will be structured: whether through cooperatives of small producers, vertically-integrated retail outlets, or a boutique direct-to-consumer model.
In the meantime, reforming our medical marijuana laws has been discussed publicly as an afterthought at best. Frankly, if the medical system wasn’t so conservative, we likely wouldn’t be having this ‘recreational’ use conversation. Presently, medical marijuana patients — who have a serious condition to even qualify for a card in VT — are not being adequately served by being limited to only utilize one dispensary out of the four, or grow their own, or assign a caregiver.
To deny these sick people the access and liberty to choose their own therapeutic treatment only serves the interests of the three entities — forced by statute into a nonprofit status that does not necessarily fit their ideal operating model nor actually pass along significant savings for patients who are paying over $350 per ounce of medical marijuana. This is why you don’t let the Department of Public Safety (police) run a health treatment program.
The Vermont legislature should expand the qualifying conditions, allowing out-of-state patients to access Vermont dispensaries, reduce physician relationship time (even New Hampshire only has 3 months) and allowing at least 3-4 more dispensaries (one in NEK) to open immediately. More dispensaries would bring lower prices, more variety of therapeutic treatment, and allow for Vermont workers and employers to develop skills in a legal setting and prepare for participation in a regional cannabis economy.
Importantly, this would also allow for more cannabis cultivation, testing, processing and business practices to evolve here in Vermont. Would the process be perfect? No, but it couldn’t be worse than the present appearance of administration favoritism: Half of the dispensaries in Vermont are managed by one company, that happens to be owned by the former chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party. While I’ve heard he’s a great guy with background in California medical cannabis, having a political operative own half the licenses already fails the smell test.
After navigating (very) expensive and complicated regulations that were largely being written on the fly, the existing medical marijuana dispensaries deserve to have first shot at the personal use market — and will, no matter how it happens. But protecting their monopoly is actively retarding the larger cannabis community by limiting patients to a single supplier, and preventing other Vermonters from joining the country’s fastest growing industry.
People demand the right to grow at home, and nobody should be fined or arrested for possessing or cultivating a small amount.
Where the House has been admirable is in the willingness to listen to average citizens who — without affinity to cannabis — appreciate that the right to garden and grow our own food and herbs is a natural one, not one bestowed by a legislature that should be subject to compromise or require registration.
There are valid concerns about bad actors over-producing and flooding the illicit market (which here is mostly comprised of west coast weed delivered by the USPS), but our right to liberty as Vermonters should trump unfounded fears of gangsters raiding greenhouses.
The proposal to allow home cultivation with a license is an elegant one — everyone with whom I’ve spoken has had the same reaction: Eyes light up, “$125 isn’t that bad, I’d pay that!”, followed by an indignant scoff at the idea of Public Safety being in charge of that program. A cannabis control board should ultimately be established, but in the meantime, any new home grow provisions should be integrated into agriculture or health, not law enforcement.
So that’s the solution: It’s not perfect for anyone, but it’s progress and it’s compromise that sets us on the right track: Allow for more medical dispensaries to open up immediately and provide a path for future legitimate cannabis businesses to evolve more naturally, and legalize possession of an ounce, along with a provision allowing for home grow of a few plants.
For months, the discussion has shifted and while most of the talk in Montpelier has happened in the hallways and behind closed doors, Vermonters have made their voices heard: It’s time for meaningful cannabis reform and these compromise suggestions represent the best outcomes under realistic political circumstances.
Eli Harrington is the editor of Heady Vermont.