Legal cannabis sales are finally coming to Vermont after Governor Phil Scott allowed a bill to go into effect without his signature.
This leaves Washington, D.C. as the only jurisdiction in the United States that has legalized adult use cannabis, but not regulated sales.
Some background on Vermont’s path to legal sales: Vermont lawmakers legalized cannabis possession, use, and home cultivation back in 2018, but not sales. Then, earlier this year, before the coronavirus pandemic put many United States legislatures on hold, the Vermont Senate and House chambers both passed S. 54, legislation to tax and regulate cannabis sales. A committee of six lawmakers formed to try to reconcile a wide range of differences between the Senate and House versions of the legislation. Those lawmakers met, virtually, for the first time in August, and continued until they reached a deal in mid-September.
It was unclear whether Scott, who previously vetoed cannabis sales legislation, would either sign S.54, or allow it to become law. Still, in a letter sent Wednesday to Vermont Secretary of State John Bloomer, Jr., Scott praised lawmakers for making “substantial progress” in addressing some of his previous concerns, adding that “this effort is appreciated.” Scott wrote that he “consistently” called for any cannabis sales legislation to meet three key goals: to require localities to opt-in to host cannabis shops, instead of requiring them to opt-out; to put “significant funding” toward education and prevention; and to include a “plan” for cannabis impaired driving.
In the letter, Scott highlighted the need for an equitable cannabis industry. “I believe we are at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history which requires us to address systemic racism in our governmental institutions. We must take additional steps to ensure equity is a foundational principle in a new market.”
This is an area, Scott wrote, that he hopes will change, particularly because he’s concerned that licensing is set up so that will “disproportionately benefit Vermont’s existing medical dispensaries by giving them sole access to integrated licenses and an unfair head start on market access.”
Scott continued, “This creates an inequitable playing field both for our smaller minority and women-owned business applicants, and other small Vermont growers and entrepreneurs. I encourage the Legislature to look to the State of Illinois as a benchmark in how to create a cannabis market that is equitable and moves toward economic justice.”
Additionally, Scott wants lawmakers to consider a specific social equity license, and a 50% fee waiver for equity applicants, along with other provisions.
“Justice should be foundational to our work, not an add-on to be figured out secondary to commercial or other interests,” Scott wrote.
On the topic of justice, Scott signed separate legislation that automatically expunges qualifying cannabis-related charges.
During the process to reconcile differences between the House and Senate’s different approaches to cannabis sales, a number of compromises had to be made, from advertising to saliva tests for impairment. In the end, Vermont’s sales bill will make the state’s cannabis program one of the most conservative in the nation. For example, cannabis flower with more than 30% THC will be banned, as will solid concentrate products with more than 60% THC. No other state has such a cap on cannabis flower sold for adult use.
And while the bill doesn’t allow for roadside saliva tests, it does allow them with a warrant. Further, the bill allows for a Drug Recognition Expert’s testimony on cannabis impairment to be presumed admissible. Scott noted in his letter that law enforcement will likely need more funding for training related to detecting impaired driving.
“The significance of Vermont’s decision to legalize and regulate cannabis sales, especially in a state with a Republican governor and through the legislative process, cannot be overstated,” Steven Hawkins, executive director at the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. “The fact that Vermont accomplished this through the legislative process is also incredibly important because it shows that representative, democratic government is up to this challenge and is proving responsive to average citizens.”
“We are greatly disappointed in Governor Scott, who has been so steadfast in his pro-public health and safety stance, would allow the marijuana industry to expand into Vermont,” Kevin Sabet, founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national anti-legalization group, said in a statement.
Scott flagged in his letter that the creation of the regulatory body, the Cannabis Control Board, by mid-January, is “too aggressive and may need to be extended.”