Forum focuses on economic potential of legal marijuana

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BRATTLEBORO — Marijuana is expected by some to be a budding business for Vermont if it becomes legal to sell.

"This is an opportunity for us to set the standard for an industry, and I want to see that," Vermont Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, said Thursday during "The Growing Business of Cannabis" forum at the VFW Post 1034 Carl Dessaint. "Of course, there are parts of that that are scary, but it's an amazing opportunity for us."

State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, described "a really crazy, wild west system" in Vermont, where marijuana can be possessed by adults in certain quantities but it is not regulated, taxed or tested. She said the Senate has passed a bill five times that would change that.

The latest version is in the House of Representatives and contains language that would allow municipalities to adopt new local option taxes. They also would have the ability to opt out of any permitted use such as growing, retail sales and testing.

State Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Windham-2-3, said the House has "a lot of complexity in front of us" but the hope is to have a bill before the governor this coming session.

"We don't know what form it will take," Balint said of the bill. "If you have strong feelings, ... the time to engage is now."

Bridget Contry, director of marketing at Champlain Valley Dispensary, said staffing will be an issue as cannabis business grows in the state. She has seen the number of employees and days of operation expand at dispensaries.

Granted the first license to operate in Vermont in 2012, Champlain Valley Dispensary opened in Burlington the following year. The same group opened Southern Vermont Wellness in Brattleboro in 2014.

Five licenses have now been issued to dispensaries statewide and there are 5,300 patients registered throughout the system, Conry said. Each patient can purchase up to 56.6 grams every 30 days.

Fear about the industry prompted slow staffing growth at the dispensaries, Conry said, as employees worried about government raids and how future employers might look at their job history. Her group now has 70 people working in two production facilities, four dispensing locations, a Hemp-based retail business, and sales and marketing.

With the industry growing in Vermont and globally, Conry said she is seeing more interest among people with different skill sets needed in her business. She reported low unemployment levels making it difficult to find employees.

"And that affects our productivity," she said. "And it's something I hear from business owners in all different areas of Vermont right now."

Conry said 20 to 30 percent of her group's work involves complying with regulations. She used inventory tracking as an example.

"If something is missing we have to report it," she said. "And so the reporting process requires us to report within 24 hours. And we have 10 days to investigate and put in a full report to ... our regulator."

Conry said her group cannot accept credit cards for sales and it has no access to traditional bank loans. It also never knows what will happen in the Vermont Legislature.

"So it's really hard to invest for the future," said Conry.

Gaining support from the federal government and doctors is one of her group's biggest goals.

"This still is a big experiment," Conry said. "We have hundreds of years of people using cannabis in certain forms, where most people feel like it is safe. The medical community is not there yet. And we have worked very hard to educate the medical community to get them to feel like this is something they can get behind."

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Cary Giguere, director of public health and agricultural resource management at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said hemp production has increased exponentially year after year since a pilot program began under a 2014 farm bill.

"The hemp industry is drawing folks to this state," he said, noting that Northeast Processing in Brattleboro has brought families here. "Right now, we're close to 5,000 acres of hemp grown in this state."

Giguere said more than 1,500 acres have been parceled out on dairy farms, which are looking to supplement their incomes.

David Harlow, a Brattleboro-based attorney with Downs Rachlin Martin whose expertise is in labor, said the legalization of cannabis in Vermont last July has affected nearly every area of law.

"It has revealed, I think, certain issues under Vermont law that may require some change or at least some consideration in the future," he said. "Vermont has one of the most onerous drug testing statutes in the country for employers to be able to drug test."

Harlow said employers in Vermont are required to test an employee believed to be impaired on the job. If they come up positive, the process is "followed by an employee assistance program to basically allow the employee to recover. And during that time, the employee's employment is protected."

That expense can be difficult for smaller employers, Harlow said, "and essentially impossible to implement because it is unaffordable."

Cassandra Holloway, director of the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition, asked attendees to "take a pause" to think about young people in the community. She said a Center for Disease Control survey indicated 45 percent of Brattleboro Union High School students reported using marijuana and more than 25 percent of them use every month.

"We're the fourth highest state of marijuana use for adults in the nation so we do have a lot of excess use of marijuana in this community and we are bringing a drug into a community where people are constantly debating that there is already too many drugs in it," she said.

Holloway expressed hope that funding would be made available to groups like hers to address messaging around marijuana. White mentioned that extra tax revenue from regulated marijuana could be used for education and prevention.

"Nobody wants to increase the use and the access that teens have to these products," Balint said. "All I can tell you is it is very much on our radar screen and we are not naive about this at all."

Dan Yates, president and CEO of Brattleboro Savings & Loan, said his bank is charted by the state but insured by the federal government.

"Consequently, everything that we do is subject to federal regulation," he said. "Marijuana is a controlled substance."

For banks to provide financial services, Yates said, "we are effectively engaged in money laundering under the federal regulations. So that's a problem. We could lose our charter."

Yates said the U.S. Department of Justice has indicated it will now allow banks to move forward with working with marijuana businesses if they adhere to certain guidelines.

"In March of this year, our board of directors made a conscious and unanimous decision that we would proceed with the development of policies and procedures so we could become the first bank in the state of Vermont to provide services to this industry," he said. "We have been doing so for the hemp industry for about a year and a half."

Yates expects the bank to open its first marijuana business account within the next couple of weeks.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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