Lawmakers who pushed for a tax-and-regulate marijuana market in Vermont met last week with the state’s Cannabis Control Board to hear about next steps and reiterate their intent to show favoritism to minorities.
Among the three-member board’s upcoming tasks include choosing an executive director as the state prepares to open a retail cannabis market by the fall of 2022. The ideal candidate will be an attorney with legislative or regulatory experience. Eventually, the whole board will be comprised of 14 members.
At their June 2 meeting, the members walked through S.25, signed into law Monday by Gov. Phil Scott. The law mandates that racial equity measures be incorporated into the commercial cannabis industry. It also requires each community to vote by March 1, 2022, on whether to allow retail sales.
Led by Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, and Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, S.25 has bipartisan support. The language ensures that skin color determines who gets priority for financial assistance to own a marijuana business. The Cannabis Control Board has discretion on granting licenses, including adjusting costs based on the applicant’s race. The distribution of low-interest loans also is based on race.
“The Cannabis Control Board shall propose a plan for reducing or eliminating licensing fees for individuals from communities that historically have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition or individuals directly and personally impacted by cannabis prohibition,” the law states.
By Jan. 15, 2022, the executive director of the Cannabis Control Board must get lawmakers a summary of its work with the Department of Labor, Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the Department of Corrections, and the Director of Racial Equity “to develop outreach, training, and employment programs focused on providing economic opportunities to individuals who historically have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition.”
James Pepper, the board’s chair, said “prioritizing social equity and social equity applicants” is a primary goal moving forward. He also said that financial barriers must not be overbearing for small-time growers.
“If the fee structures are going to be so high for the craft grower, for the micro and macro businesses, we’re never going to get off the ground,” he said.
During the meeting, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a proponent for marijuana legalization, cited a study by the RAND Corporation that indicated a large number of Vermonters have been using marijuana for years.
“If you had 70,000 to 80,000 Vermonters doing something that is illegal, [the law] needed to change,” he said.
Sears noted that after years of public hearings, one of the biggest concerns he hears from constituents is that big companies from out of state will take over the market.
“One of the principles that we got hit with when we had those public hearings was don’t allow Big Pot to come into Vermont,” he said. “That’s kind of the genesis of a lot of the language that you see in the bill. We’re doing our best to make sure that we don’t get monopolized by some out-of-state corporation.”
During the public comment section of the meeting, Addison County High Bailiff Dave Silberman said he’s confident that big corporations won’t be able to corner the market.
“We really do want to limit it and not allow corporate consolidation,” Silberman said. “So while we’ll be able to have folks come in from out of state and have big multi-state operators come in, they are going to be limited to that one store, or that one growing operation, or that one manufacturing facility.”
Not everyone has agreed with that assessment. Bishop Jethro James, pastor of Paradise Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., told True North in 2019 that he’s not convinced that Vermont growers can compete with the big companies. “You never can compete with the giants in this world,” he said.
Jessilyn Dolan, of the American Cannabis Nurses Association, said that for some groups, such as military personnel, applying for a medical marijuana card could mean taking the risk of losing other benefits.
“There are people who are literally worried about their life benefits if they put their name on a medical card,” she said.