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Cannabis Control Board Focusing On Social Equity & 'Craft Cannabis’

Purchasing legal cannabis at a retail marijuana dispensary
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A customer buys cannabis at a legal dispensary. Regulations for Vermont's legal retail cannabis marketplace have been delayed by the pandemic, but the rulemaking body hopes to keep the process on track for retail cannabis businesses to open by October 2022.

Vermont could have its first legal retail cannabis shops open sometime next year, but the committee crafting the new rules for the state's marijuana industry is up against a tight timeline, and there could be a delay before the first pot shops open.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman about how Vermont’s cannabis rulemaking is proceeding. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Gov. Phil Scott appointed the three members to the Cannabis Control Board back in March. Tell us a little bit about what they're supposed to be doing right now.

Howard Weiss-Tisman: Act 164 was passed in 2020. That was legislation that basically said retail weed will be legal in Vermont. But all the rules for the new industry have to be written. That includes setting up the license fees for stores and growers, and figuring out how to regulate the testing labs. All of that stuff has to be written down, and that's what the Cannabis Control Board is doing right now.

And after all these rules are written, the board is going to be the body that approves these licenses. So the growers, the shop owners, they'll all be applying for licenses, and it will be up to the board to decide who gets those.

More from Vermont Edition: What You Need To Know About Vermont's New Tax-And-Regulate System For Cannabis

Vermont has had a medical marijuana program since 2015. Is anything from that program carrying over to this retail market?

A little bit is, but it's definitely a whole new industry. It's going to require a whole new set of rules. But there were definitely lessons learned in [setting up] the dispensaries, and a lot of the folks who do have dispensary licenses are going to move right into the retail [cannabis] market.

So it's a little bit of both. It's definitely a whole new thing, but there'll be some carryover for sure.

The board held its first meeting in May, and they've been meeting pretty regularly since then. How have those meetings been going? What are some of the issues they're talking about?

Early on, the board set up seven priorities that they were going to try to focus on, and they've been holding these meetings [and] kind of focusing one at each meeting. They’ve been bringing in experts and hearing from the public. And they're looking at things like youth prevention and consumer protection, and environmental and land impacts. They've been looking at the medical [marijuana] program. They want to make sure that patients continue to have access to their medicine once the retail market is going.

And they're really trying to focus on developing what they're calling a Vermont “craft cannabis industry.” They want the rules to be written so that small growers can do their things, so that single shop owners in towns have access to the markets. And the board's really committed to focusing on social equity, which means trying to make the new industry accessible to those who've been negatively impacted by past drug laws.

I spoke to James Pepper, chair of the three-member Cannabis Control Board, and this is what he said about social equity:

“Social equity has really become kind of a flagship issue. You know, it's a way to compensate for or to correct some of the, you know, disproportionate impact of the war on drugs, that lead to selective policing and lead to criminal convictions that have had second and third order impacts, primarily on people of color. And so how do we economically empower and try to encourage people who have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs [to get] into this cannabis business?”

James Pepper, chair of the Cannabis Control Board

And Mitch, if you remember, Gov. Scott was very concerned about more people driving while they were high once cannabis was legal, and it was a real sticking point for him. So the board is also spending time looking at highway safety. And once they've covered all of these issues in their meetings, they're going to get their notes together and start writing out the rules to regulate the industry.

More from VPR: Cannabis Control Board Picks Breath New Life Into Vt.'s Quest To Set Up Legal Pot Marketplace

Yeah, it’s interesting on the highway safety point, I think that's part of the reason that the governor allowed it to become law, but without his signature, because he was not satisfied with that particular issue.

Howard, it does sound like a lot of work here. When are they hoping to have these rules in place? When might we see these first retail shops actually open?

That's the big question. Everyone wants to know when they'll be able to buy their pot legally in Vermont.

The board got a late start, mostly due to COVID-19. It took Gov. Scott a little time to name the members to the board and their first report was supposed to be handed in to the Legislature in April. And that's been pushed to October.

This first report is supposed to have the fee structure and some of the licensing regulations in it. Before anyone invests in real estate, or decides to get involved in this new market, they want to know what the parameters are. So that first report is really important, but as I said, it's months behind.

Now, [Cannabis Control Board Chair] James Pepper said the board can't just ignore the deadlines [and] it's their job to continue working. It will be up to lawmakers to move the deadlines if possible, and this is what he said about trying to meet that timeline:

“We really are not going to sacrifice the integrity of what we're trying to create — our work product — in order to strictly adhere to timelines that maybe were unrealistic to begin with. And if the Legislature, by Oct. 1, recognizes that we're not on track, then I think it's incumbent upon them to think about, well, do these timelines make sense? Because, honestly, it's easier to fix them before they occur, as opposed to us missing a deadline and having to deal with the political fallout of that, after the fact.”

James Pepper, chair of the Cannabis Control Board

The board is still hiring legal counsel and a consultant, and they don't even have an office set up yet. Right now, they're shooting for the first shops to be open in October 2022 [with medical dispensaries potentially selling retail cannabis a few months earlier].

Pepper thinks they're still on track, but we're gonna have to see how it all rolls out in the next couple of months.

Reporter Debrief: To Sell Or Not To Sell Pot? About 20 Communities Will Consider It At Town Meeting

Finally, Howard, there is also legislation moving on the federal level that would legalize marijuana around the country. What would that mean here for Vermont?

Yeah, there are bills in Congress now. Rep. Peter Welch is involved with the one in the U.S. House, and a lot of folks who are involved in the cannabis industry think it's only a matter of time before it's legalized across the country.

The big impact that will have on Vermont is, once it's legal to move [cannabis] across state lines, Vermonters are going to be competing nationally. And if there are big farms in Oregon, or in the Midwest, that can grow a lot of cannabis, and the price falls very low, it could be tough for small growers.

That’s why [the board] is really trying to concentrate on this “craft” industry, trying to push the Vermont brand, and hoping that Vermont entrepreneurs and growers step up and produce a product that can compete nationally.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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