Reporter Debrief: To Sell Or Not To Sell Pot? About 20 Communities Will Consider It At Town Meeting
On Town Meeting Day next week, residents of about 20 cities and towns around the state will decide whether to allow cannabis stores and growing operations to open in their communities. But the state still needs to finalize regulations around legal marijuana sales, which are likely over a year away.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman about Vermont's tax-and-regulate system for recreational cannabis. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So, tell us first, where are these votes happening on Town Meeting Day? And why are communities taking this step to decide whether to allow pot shops?
Howard Weiss-Tisman: Yes. So, like you said, about 20 towns are voting on the cannabis question at Town Meeting. They include Brattleboro and Bennington, Burlington, Middlebury and Waterbury, along with some others.
The reason that towns are holding a vote this year is because the Legislature passed the cannabis law last year with what's called an opt-in provision. And, you know, most of the time lawmakers don't attach an opt-in clause to a new bill. They pass a law, like allowing farmers to sell raw milk, and once the law is passed, farmers can sell raw milk. The towns don't have to do anything. But with cannabis, lawmakers said, “OK, we'll allow the legal sale of marijuana, but towns have to vote and say they want stores in their town.”
That's an opt-in vote. And that's what's happening on Town Meeting Day. I spoke to Andrew Subin. He's a Burlington attorney specializing in cannabis law, and this is what he said about the upcoming votes.
“Those 20 towns will have an answer for next week, which is great. I mean, it certainly gives these towns a head start on trying to attract retail businesses to their town." - Attorney Andrew Subin
These votes, they kind of put towns at the head of the line and entrepreneurs who are thinking about getting involved in the cannabis industry, they'll know where they can start looking at real estate and investing in their businesses.
And so, if towns do approve allowing a cannabis business in their community, what happens next?
So, the new pot shops weren't supposed to open before October of 2022, but at this point, even that start date might have to be pushed back some. And that's because the process for setting up the Cannabis Control Board has been delayed largely due to the pandemic.
The Cannabis Control Board will be establishing rules for the new industry. And Gov. Scott was supposed to choose the three-member board last month, but he only just received those nominations and it's not clear when he'll name his final picks.
OK, so then once those are named, what will the Cannabis Control Board actually do?
Well, the board’s supposed to come up with policies around license fees and how much money the state will need to regulate the industry. And they're expected to make decisions about online ordering and deliveries and about whether cannabis producers should be overseen by the Health Department. And the law says the board is supposed to develop social equity programs that are focused on making sure people of color who have been historically disproportionately impacted by existing cannabis laws are not left behind.
And so, given that those regulations are still to be created, what does that mean for the cities and towns that are voting on whether or not to allow marijuana operations on Town Meeting Day?
So, the original idea was that the board would be appointed this winter and they'd pass their first set of recommendations to lawmakers this session, but the process is already about two months behind schedule.
So, it remains to be seen if lawmakers will get anything to consider this session, and if they don't, it could push the whole process back a full year. And this uncertainty is a big reason why only 20 towns are moving ahead this year.
Gwynn Zakov is with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and this is what she told lawmakers this week.
“One of the biggest, biggest, biggest frustrating things that we have on our end is when locals are talking to their select boards or city councils, and then the city councils are asking us or their town and city attorneys what's going on. And our answer is [LAUGHTER]. That’s our answer. We don't know.” - Gwynn Zakov, Vermont League of Cities and Towns
So, it sounds like a lot of uncertainty still, there. But, Howard, on top of this, there are a few bills that lawmakers are working on in the Legislature right now to amend the marijuana legalization law. So, what's happening there?
Yeah, Windham County Sen. Jeanette White told me she wants to introduce a bill that carves out some of the tax money for local towns. Right now, there's a 20% tax on cannabis sales, but all of that goes to the state. Now, if a town has a local option tax, then they'll be getting some of the revenue, but most towns will not see extra revenue, unless there's a change.
And there's another bill, S. 25, and that would require every municipality to hold a vote before next year's town meeting, but there's been a lot of pushback on that idea and I'm not sure where that one's going to go.
And the bill is also trying to set up a low interest loan fund for groups that have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana laws, as well as reducing the licensing fees for those populations.
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