Commission fields comments on pot legislation
Editor's note: This story was amended at 12:15 p.m. on Dec. 7, 2018.
BENNINGTON — In Bennington Wednesday, the Governor's Marijuana Advisory Commission heard mostly from residents anxious to get a tax and regulate system up and running in Vermont and to ensure small "craft" cannabis growers and retailers don't get squeezed out of the business.
The commission's listening tour of five communities drew about 40 people to the Vermont Veterans Home Wednesday evening. A final session before the group finalizes a report to Gov. Phil Scott on options for legalizing marijuana sales was scheduled for Thursday in St. Johnsbury.
"Hopefully, we will get a tax and regulate system," said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a member of the advisory group.
Sears also is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and an advocate of legalizing marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. During the meeting, he described efforts of his committee and the Senate to put forward such legislation, including passing a Senate bill, then gaining House support, but then finally seeing that legislation vetoed last year by Scott.
The governor, who has raised concerns about the effects on highway safety and other issues, afterward appointed the advisory commission with the charge of issuing a report to his office by mid-December. He also agreed to sign a bill that took effect in July and legalizes possession of an ounce of marijuana and allows residents to grow a small number of plants.
Prior to the listening tour, subcommittees of the commission issued draft reports on taxation and regulation, highway safety and education and prevention.
Sears said submission of a legalization bill allowing sales to adults will follow release of the commission's report.
"We're not going to reinvent the wheel," he said of the legislation.
There was much work done on previously passed legislation Sears said, but comments heard during the listening tour could prompt revisions.
In any legislation, there should be "protections in place" for small marijuana growers, said Adam Platt, of Green Mountain Aquaponics, of Bennington.
He said he's concerned that a limit on the number of licenses or other aspects of a legalization proposal might lead to only large businesses participating and the discouragement of small craft beer-like companies.
Scott Stohler, who said he's a longtime local grower, said there may be a need for a few large growers in Vermont to meet the demand after legalization, but he advocated strong efforts to also encourage small farms.
David Crowley was critical some of the material in the commission subcommittee reports, saying educational efforts aimed at teens should avoid being "dishonest and not forthcoming" about marijuana or those programs "could lose the very kids you are looking to convince" to defer using the drug until they are of legal age.
Statistics since 2003 already show a decline in marijuana use among high school students, he said.
Crowley likewise was one of those who spoke against the taxation subcommittee's draft recommendation for taxes totaling 26 percent on sales, saying that level would "perpetuate the system of a black market underground," because residents would not want to pay such a steep premium.
"The tax rate has to be competitive with the black market," Sears said at one point. "That was one of the problems with medicinal marijuana."
Although there will be recommendations in the commission's report to Scott, the Legislature will ultimately set the tax rate, Sears said.
Other speakers said the final cost of marijuana could be a factor in steering residents seeking relief from pain or other medical issues to turn to opioids instead, risking addiction.
Crowley also called for a two-tiered system of taxation — one for residents and another for non-residents. For residents over 21, "there is no reason for you to have to pay this punitive tax," Crowley said.
He said the state also should drop what seems a "scold" attitude toward marijuana, adding, "Perhaps it's time to embrace the wishes of the clear majority of Vermonters who want legal marijuana."
Attorney Bradley Myerson, of Manchester, ripped some of the draft recommendations in the tax and regulation subcommittee report. He said proposals to use large amounts of projected sales tax revenue for a driver saliva testing program; projected new law enforcement expenses related to legalization, data collection on marijuana-related violations, and to add new drug recognition expert officers were over-estimated and "not an appropriate level for that."
One section of the draft report estimates first year costs for Department of Public Safety programs up more than $2.5 million. New costs also are projected for other state agencies.
Some of those safety programs already receive adequate funding from federal sources, Myerson said.
He and others also recommended against earmarking the marijuana tax revenue to a specific section of the state budget and therefore tying it to that purpose.
Brian Lent, manager of Dailey Precast in Shaftsbury, said marijuana use in the workplace and the ability for employers to require testing for drivers or other workers should be addressed in the legislation.
He said that, for instance, there is a zero tolerance provision in regulations for a commercial driver's license, and Dailey employees also work with cranes and other heavy equipment.
"We just have to be careful," he said.
Lynn Mazza, of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, asked whether the state could make it easier for medical or other caregivers to allow the use of marijuana for disabled persons for medicinal purposes, in light of federal prohibitions on the drug that remain in place.
There are populations of people that might benefit from marijuana, she said, but currently they "really can't access it" because of the restrictions.
Thomas Little, co-chairman of the commission, said that "might need changes in federal policy."
Other speakers called for making the licensing process for marijuana businesses as simple as possible to assist smaller companies, and for creating a central location in state government to submit applications and have questions answered.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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