Vermont is inching closer towards a legal adult-use marijuana market, two years after the state legalized possession and cultivation of the plant for personal use.
Within the past year, both legislative chambers approved their version of a marijuana sales bill – SB 54 – which led to the establishment of a bicameral conference committee to resolve points of difference and produce a joint bill.
After releasing a compromise version of SB 54, the House moved quickly to approve it in a 92-56 vote. The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration. If approved, the bill would await the signature of Gov. Phil Scott (R) who has maintained an enigmatic position on the issue.
The governor’s chief concern is the impact of legal marijuana sales on traffic safety. Scott favors roadside saliva tests for THC, along the lines of the cannabis breathalyzer pilot program launched in Oklahoma, even though measuring THC levels to prove intoxication is uncertain and such roadside tests are likely to be enforced in a way that perpetuates racial disparities in cannabis policing. The conference committee compromised on the measure. That is, saliva tests would be permitted but not at the roadside; police officers would first have to get a warrant.
When asked at a press briefing whether the latest version of the legal sales bill allayed some of his concerns, Scott was typically equivocal.
“The bill hasn’t been my top priority. [It’s] obviously a priority for the legislature and legislative leadership,” he said. “And so it’s been passed [by the House]. I will give great credit to those who I don’t believe had any thoughts of me and some of my concerns, but they’ve done so. They’ve moved forward.”
The proposed compromise bill would legalize retail marijuana sales and impose a 14 percent excise tax, on top of Vermont’s six percent sales tax. SB 54 would prioritize the issuing of cannabis retail licenses to women, minorities and those most harmed by the war on drugs. The bill would establish a new department – the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) – responsible for issuing licenses to marijuana businesses along the supply chain, from cultivation to research and retail. The bill has no provision limiting the number of licenses the CCC can issue. The cannabis industry regulator must, however, start issuing licenses by October 1, 2022 at the latest. The CCC would also assume the Department of Health’s responsibilities for Vermont’s medical cannabis program.
The bill contains provisions aimed at avoiding monopolization in the cannabis industry. No single company may hold more than one license of each type, meaning a marijuana business could be vertically integrated by holding one of each type of license but that would be the limit.
The proposed legislation also includes limits for THC; 30 percent for cannabis flower and 60 percent for marijuana oils, while sales of flavored vape cartridges would be prohibited.
To start the process of applying for adult-use marijuana dispensary licenses, local jurisdictions must first opt-in to allow it. They can then set their own specific rules and regulations, such as limiting the number of retail cannabis outlets, but they could not prohibit non-retail marijuana companies from opening up and operating in their jurisdiction.
If the Senate passes the bill and the governor signs it into law, Vermont would become the second state in the US – after Illinois – to legalize cannabis via the legislature rather than a voter-approved ballot initiative.