Forum: Could Legalizing Pot Grow Vermont's Localvore Economy?

Aug 24, 2015

A group of Vermont business leaders called the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative has been inviting public comment on the best way to create a safe, sustainable marijuana industry. Medical marijuana is already being legally distributed, but using it recreationally is still against state law.

The collaborative has been leading public discussions around the state, the most recent in St. Johnsbury, about how marijuana, if it becomes legal and regulated, could create jobs.

As a few dozen people — some wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Grow Your Own” — trickled into the basement of the Catamount Arts Building, the forum moderator, Caledonia Sen. Joe Benning, said this was not yet the time to debate whether or not to legalize marijuana.

“The purpose of this conversation tonight is to talk about what, if anything, would happen, if we did legalize. How would it work?” Benning said.  

That conversation was led by Will Raap, the founder of Gardeners’ Supply Company, who is also a member of the Cannabis Collaborative. Raap says well-regulated, scientifically-tested cannabis could be a boon to health, and also a new player in Vermont’s burgeoning localvore economy.

“In some ways we see what we are doing as analogous to the specialty cheese movement, to the craft beer movement, to the local food movement. How do we create this sort of structure of authorization and a  resource base to advance, in the case of the local food movement, 5,000 new jobs created in the last five years in Vermont?” Raap said.

The audience for a forum in St. Johnsbury presented by the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative make suggestions for deriving economic benefits from the legalization of marijuana.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

For example, he asked, how should  producers of any size be licensed and monitored?

Stuart Savel, from Brattleboro, wants to avoid taxing pot. He thinks the state should sell licenses based not on the number of plants, but on acreage — starting, perhaps, with one license per 10-by-10-foot plot.

Will Raap, of the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative, gives a presentation in St. Johnsbury about the potential economic benefits of creating a marijuana economy "the Vermont Way": ensuring safety, promoting research and allowing for statewide participation by both small and large growers.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

“Let’s say that’s a unit … You are growing a little bit and you want to grow a little bit more because you think you have the most fantastic brownie mix there is. But you’re not sure. So you buy another parcel and you buy the license to sell it to a licensed re-seller,” Savel proposed.  

Several growers already supplying legal medical marijuana in Vermont said they would like to see other value-added enterprises, like research and testing labs.  

But there were a few cautionary voices. Betty Keller is a physician, no longer practicing, from St. Johnsbury. She wants to make sure that any marijuana that is sold in Vermont has been tested for the purity and strength of ingredients. She worries that cheap importers could be less scrupulous than Vermont producers.  

“I am just concerned about the safety of our young people if we were to proceed with this looking so much at economics,” Keller said.

Keller likes the idea of legalizing pot if that means stricter oversight. Still, she has concerns about the safety of products coming in from other states that are not as closely regulated as Vermont sellers might be.

Caledonia Sen. Joe Benning acknowledged that there may not be enough support in the legislature yet for legalizing marijuana. But he thinks it might make sense to regulate that industry and perhaps even reap some economic rewards from it.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

State representative Gary Viens, a former border patrol officer from Newport, is also undecided about whether pot should be legal for non-medical purposes. He says he knows many law enforcers oppose that.  

“I also know how what I will classify as the 'stoners' feel, because I had a lot of dealings with them throughout 32 years of law enforcement. And as a legislator now I feel I get pushed and pulled from both sides,” Viens said.

Sen. Benning acknowledged that there may not be enough support in the legislature yet for legalizing marijuana. But he cites a report that showed that between 30,000 and 50,000 pounds of pot were consumed illegally in this state last year. Benning says he is not one of those consumers. But he thinks it might make sense to regulate that industry and perhaps even reap some economic rewards from it.