MONTPELIER — Those who hope to sell recreational cannabis legally within Vermont’s borders will want to make public outreach their focus, according to a cannabis expert.
On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Scott allowed S.54, a bill laying the framework for a recreational marijuana market, pass into law without his signature.
“With Vermont, I’ve got to say, ‘it’s about time,’” said Bruce Barcott, senior editor at Leafly, a cannabis website with its headquarters in Seattle. “Vermont’s rollout is going to be quite slow and steady.”
Oct. 1, 2022, is when the Cannabis Control Board can start issuing retail licenses, though some medical dispensaries will be able to operate sooner that year.
Barcott said that will leave state regulators time to create rules surrounding sales, and that they have plenty of states to look to for examples.
“Their books are open and it’s easy to find out how to do it in the right way and avoid the mistakes Colorado and Washington made and get things moving,” he said.
Vermont’s law has some notable features, he said. Among them, the THC limits on edibles are half what they are in other states.
“The other feature of the Vermont law is having expungement written into the law,” he said. “That’s really important, that’s a really good deal to make the courts do it and not put the burden on people to hire a lawyer and go through a really lengthy process.”
When he let the bill pass into law, the governor also sent a letter to the Legislature listing his outstanding concerns with the statute, namely that it doesn’t do a great deal to address the disproportionate impact marijuana prohibition has had on minority communities.
“I don’t see any sort of equity program written into the Vermont law, and that was a feature of the Massachusetts program, and it’s a big feature of the Illinois (law),” said Barcott.
A coalition of farming and social justice groups, led in part by Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, called on Scott to veto the bill. NOFA-Vermont, in a September blog post, stated, “In setting up taxation and regulations for retail sales of cannabis, S.54 does not prioritize restorative justice and inclusion of those most harmed by our nation’s racist history of cannabis prohibition, criminalization and mass incarceration.”
Barcott said the regulatory board created by the law, or the Legislature itself, has time to address those concerns.
“This is one of those situations where the work, in terms of creating a solid, equitable retail market, continues after the singing of this bill into law, because there still is the opportunity to create those, maybe it’s setting aside a portion of licenses for folks who have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs, and that sort of thing,” he said.
Unlike many other states that have legalized recreational marijuana markets, Vermont requires municipalities to vote to allow sales rather than vote to disallow them.
“Sometimes when legalization passes, people in states who voted for legalization are surprised when they find themselves having to vote for legalization twice,” Barcott said.
In some states, such as California, residents have to drive long distances to buy legal cannabis, said Barcott.
Vermont, being physically small, will see a different dynamic where towns that haven’t allowed retail sales won’t be far from ones that have.
While the debate over S.54 played out, the Select Board for the town of Clarendon voted a couple of times to pre-emptively ban cannabis stores within its limits. The entire board was in favor of the ordinance calling for the ban, and the only community dissent came from people who had issues with the speed of the process. The board ultimately let the issue rest after it had questions about the proper warning for the ordinance.
Select Board Chairman Mike Klopchin said Monday that he can’t speak for his board, however, he doesn’t believe it has changed its mind with regards to not wanting marijuana stores in town.
Barcott said what cannabis retailers have discovered is that public outreach is key when setting up shop in a state that has legalized sales.
“It really makes a difference,” he said. “Because people tend to have very scary ideas about who is going to be growing and who is going to be selling in their community. The reality is, it’s just you and me, it’s our neighbors, it’s the same people who’ve lived there for years and years.”