Lawmakers, advocates press to legalize sale of cannabis in Vermont

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MONTPELIER — Vermont Attorney General T. J. Donovan, legislative leaders and advocates gathered Thursday at the Statehouse to press for the adoption this year of a bill that would establish a tax-and-regulate system for commercial cannabis.

"After four years of further study and deliberation ... it seems clear to me that, in the year 2020, there is no state in the U.S. that is more ready to regulate cannabis sales than Vermont," said Matt Simon, political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit.

Donovan echoed the sentiment, contending it is "way past time" to create a legal marketplace for the drug. "It's good for consumer protection, it's good for public health, it's good for public safety and it's good for the state of Vermont," he said.

The Vermont Senate last year passed a legalization bill, S.54, by a vote of 23 to 5. The bill is now being considered by committees in the House.

Donovan lamented that, although Vermont law allows adults to possess small amounts of cannabis legally, it is "absolutely silent on how they obtain it."

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a sponsor of S.54, said that by failing to establish a legal marketplace, Vermont is effectively "shipping tax dollars out of state."

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In Williamstown, Massachusetts, just over the Vermont border, Sears said, there are now two retail cannabis shops. "I would guarantee that many of their customers are from Vermont and New York," he said.

Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, who chairs the House Committee on Government Operations said she is "captaining" the cannabis bill's passage in the lower chamber. The House is taking a "measured approach" to advancing the bill, she said, allowing any committees that have "jurisdiction over certain parts of the bill [to] have the opportunity to weigh in."

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The approach, which ought to "reassure Vermonters that we are taking the time to get it right," has helped the House consider factors like environmental impact, prevention of youth access and the appropriate tax rate, Copeland-Hanzas said.

The House bill will also address concerns raised last year by Gov. Phil Scott, including roadway safety and local control, Copeland-Hanzas said.

In advance of the current legislative session, towns across the state adopted iterations of a model resolution developed by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns that generally advocates for a significant degree of municipal control over any system the Legislature might create.

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Versions of the bill in the House and Senate differ on the type and extent of taxes that would be imposed on sales, as well as on the question of whether towns would need to vote to opt in or out of hosting cannabis establishments, according to a VLCT article. The House Committee on Government Operations' version requires towns to opt in.

Copeland-Hanzas said she expects to see the bill move to the House floor by "the middle" of the current session.

Sears said that "there's always a path forward" for the House and Senate to agree on a version of the bill that also addresses the governor's concerns. "We may have fights about opt in, opt out by communities, but we're prepared to have those disagreements in a conference committee [and] see what we can work out," he said.

Sears said he hoped to have the bill ready for the governor's signature before Town Meeting Day in March.

Contact Luke Nathan at lnathan@benningtonbanner.com.


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