Marijuana board prepares path for `inevitable' legalization

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WATERBURY — Key members of Gov. Phil Scott's administration say they are preparing for the legalization and regulation of recreational marijuana, a move a co-chair of a pot commission calls "inevitable."

Scott's key Cabinet members attended the first meeting of the Governor's Marijuana Advisory Commission, which Scott created this month via executive order after vetoing a marijuana legalization bill in May.

The commission includes a handful of subcommittees — chaired by members of the Scott administration with about a dozen members each — that will look at how legalization would affect education, public health, public safety, taxation and regulation, among other things.

"It seems to me, and I just want to clarify for all of us that this is not a study of whether to have legal marijuana. It's a how-to effort," said Kaj Samsom, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Taxes.

"That's the direction," said Jaye Pershing Johnson, Scott's general counsel. "So we're looking for consensus recommendations from the subcommittees and consideration by the commission on how the best way for Vermont to get there."

Tom Little, a lawyer and former state representative who is co-chairing the commission, said he looks at the commission like this: marijuana legalization is "inevitable" and the state needs to "get ready for it."

Alternatively, he asked commission members: "What would you want in place before you went live with legalized marijuana, whether it's homegrown or retail sales? What would you want first before you do that?"

In Samsom's subcommittee on taxation and regulation, Cary Giguere from the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets proposed that his agency regulate marijuana cultivation and certification because of its existing experience with regulating farms and the food products they produce.

"The agency's regulatory program would draft, establish, and implement rules for the certification of cultivation sites, growers, and retail locations; establish acceptable cultivation and recordkeeping practices; and ensure consumer protection by conducting site inspections, certifying commercial laboratories, and testing products for adulterants and chemical constituents," Giguere wrote in a written proposal.

"Most of the concerns and processes outlined for regulating the recreational cannabis cultivation mirror programs already active at the agency," Giguere wrote. "The Agency's experience and areas of overlap would provide the opportunity for an economy of scale and efficiency in the regulatory program."

From there, the Agency of Agriculture proposes that the Department of Public Safety "enforce illegal product usage, illegal sales, distribution, and offenses such as drugged driving," while the Department of Health could run education and prevention outreach programs.

Eli Harrington, a pro-legalization advocate for Heady Vermont, said he was frustrated by the extended timeline for legalizing marijuana. He pointed to the bill the Legislature passed in May — which would have legalized marijuana starting in July 2018 — and Scott later vetoed.

In contrast, the report from Scott's subcommittee is due in December 2018, one month after Scott's potential re-election. "The political question is, do we have to wait until this commission has issued its report in 2018 in order to have a conversation about tax and regulate?" Harrington said.

"I think that the administration is certainly a lot more involved now than they were previously and we hope to expedite things," he said. "I don't think anybody is questioning `if.' I think that even the most conservative, and maybe the most opposed to regulation and to legalization accept that it's more a question of `how' and `when,' and I think, in that spirit, this is positive."

Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the lower chamber of the Legislature will need to decide in 2018 whether to concur with a compromise bill that the Senate passed in June in response to Scott's veto. The bill did not move forward due to procedural delays.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who has spearheaded multiple marijuana legalizations in the Vermont Senate, said "time will tell" whether the commission leads to marijuana legalization. "I hope so," he said.

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