Concerns of ‘Big Marijuana’ takeover expressed at pot commercialization forum

Michael Bielawski/TNR

SELLING MARY JANE: From left to right are Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan, Erik Gunderson of the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy, Kevin Conroy of Foley Hoag LLP, Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners, Joe Bergeron of the Association of Vermont Credit Unions, Laura Subin of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, and David Mickenberg of Mickenberg, Dunn & Smith, PLC.

BURLINGTON — As policymakers from Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont gathered Thursday night to discuss plans for a commercial marijuana market in Vermont, critics of legalization showed up to say Vermont farmers can expect to be overrun by large corporate marketers.

The public forum, hosted by Attorney General TJ Donovan in Burlington City Hall’s Contois Auditorium, was billed as a conversation about cannabis, and drew from the experiences of other states.

The panel of marijuana experts and policymakers discussed S.54, currently in House Ways and Means Committee, which would legalize and regulate cannabis sales in Vermont. The bill addresses marijuana licensing rules, testing and safety regulations, tax rates, funds for education and prevention.

The bill has its critics. Bishop Jethro James, pastor of Paradise Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., is an outspoken activists against marijuana legalization. Last year he led a grassroots effort to prevent a “tax and regulate” marijuana market from passing in his home state.

He warned that Vermonters who advocate for commercial pot should be careful what they wish for.

“Vermont, you have the right if you personally want to smoke, but you never can compete with the giants in this world,” he said at a press gathering after the forum. “… The Vermont Way should say, not only do we have [decriminalization], but we have personal use, and so why do we need big marijuana?”

Bishop Jethro James

Bishop Jethro James: “Vermont, you have the right if you personally want to smoke, but you never can compete with the giants in this world.”

According to James and other legalization critics, the start-up costs for a marijuana farmer looking to replicate the small-time operations of the craft-brewing industry are far from ideal. Estimates to construct a growing facility are $200 per-square-foot, plus licensing fees for growing, processing and retail.

“You heard a million to five million just to get started,” James said. “It’s not like you’re going to First National Bank and say ‘I’m getting ready to start a business, I’m getting ready to mortgage my farm.’ What really is going to happen [is] one of the big companies will come in and say, ‘You 30-year-old farmer, I could use your acre or two and I’m willing to give you a million dollars for that acre.’ I think he or she is going to take that million and run.”

Judith Margulies, of Timbre Health Consulting, brought up the example of Massachusetts-based Curaleaf, one of the largest marijuana businesses in the world. The company has made headlines for its financial ties to a Russian billionaire and its alleged influence on American politicians.

Margulies challenged the notion that marijuana activism is mostly grassroots. Citing Curaleaf’s own documents, she said Vermont is one of a few dozen states the company considers to have significant policy influence. Maine is also on the company’s list.

She thinks Vermont’s small-farmer marijuana dreams are not realistic, given the competition from the emerging “Big Marijuana” industry players.

“Where are they going here?” she said. “Do they really believe that Vermont’s small farmer is going to be able to play in this?”

Both Margulies and James expressed concern that today’s marijuana is exponentially more potent than the marijuana of just 15 or 20 years ago, and well beyond the potency from the generation before.

James said in his state of New Jersey, pregnant mothers are using pot to treat their morning sickness, but they aren’t concerned or aware of its impacts on the developing fetus. He said their newborns have low average birth-weight because of their drug use. A study by the Colorado School of Public Health supports this suspicion.

Asked if Vermont’s current legalization status without a commercial market is preferable to the old prohibition policy, James said it depends.

“Prohibition has not worked in a lot of places. However, you have to look at each individual state,” he said.

He doesn’t think New Jersey, with its dramatic gaps in wealth between the minority and white neighborhoods, is a good fit for legal marijuana.

But Donovan said commercialization for Vermont is a foregone conclusion.

“We’re past dealing with this. I’m mean, we’ve legalized possession and we have now created a legal-limbo in Vermont where I think kids are more at risk because you don’t have regulation, you don’t have transparency, and you don’t have legitimacy to these markets,” he said.

Laura Subin, an attorney and director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, suggested during the forum that people of color should be prioritized for Vermont’s developing cannabis industry.

“We have to recognize that our policies [of prohibition] have hurt people who have less, and [we should] bring those people into these emerging businesses by having prioritization for minority-owned businesses and communities,” she said.

James said that might be illegal.

“The ACLU said you can’t do that because it’s reverse discrimination,” he said.

James said if social justice activists are sincere, what they can do is ask the governor to pardon non-violent drug offenders who do not have a federal conviction.

Throughout the forum, whenever anti-legalization or anti-commercialization opinions were presented, some marijuana advocates in the audience would laugh and make remarks.

Erik Gunderson, of the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy, advised in his closing statements that if commercialization is to succeed, all voices must be respected.

“You can tell there’s a lot of good people with a lot of concerns at both ends of the spectrum here. [It’s] so important if you do legalize it that you have that in-depth stakeholder-communications and listen to all angles and all views and try to get it right,” he said.

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

Images courtesy of Michael Bielawski/TNR and Bishop Jethro James

10 thoughts on “Concerns of ‘Big Marijuana’ takeover expressed at pot commercialization forum

  1. I need to get some assorted sized plastic bags printed up.

    “LIBERTARIAN WEED” plenty strong and tax & permit free

  2. This is nothing more than a kabuki dance. After all the dust settles and the folks move on to other issues the powers that be will proceed as they had originally planned regardless of the findings at this meeting.

  3. I wonder if big tobacco will be or is involved with the big marijuana push over the past 10 years or so?… After all, cigarette sales just keep getting lower and lower.

  4. I don’t know why people think Vermont would be so great for growing weed? The growing season is short,and if you moved it indoors to produce hydroponic the electricity rates for Vermont are on the moon.Add to that the nanny state regulation and sky high taxes on it,you soon realize that the black market stuff is just fine.Is Vermont going to have “Revenue Men” chasing after underground growers like the bootleggers of old that ran stills that produced corn liquor or gin?
    I can only imagine the vigor now by the progressive liberal revenue men pursuing that tax money.

    • The real Bonanza here is to become the revenue man himself,or even his Supervisor.Great working hours,a state vehicle with free gas,paid vacation,big paychecks with frequent raises,and health care for you and your whole family.

      I suspect there may even be a marijuana tax collector union in our future.

      • You got that right……socialists love big government, crony capitalism is their best friend. Those in Montpelier love, love, love getting rich of keeping Vermonter’s poor. The progressives code for socialists have been hiding under the democratic banner for far too long. There are many, many American loving democrats that want to do good.

        Bernie was the leader in this mess….always looking for money power and control, it’s their game, meanwhile they sell us down the road. It’s no coincidence that Bernie would run under the democratic flag, then drop it once in office. Just like he’ll do for president.

        The ties are back to his roots, Alinsky, Chicago, Communism.

  5. Interesting how leadership thinks Vermont can prosper selling drugs. Same for alcohol. Same for gambling. Who pays the highest price for these? Who suffers the most?

    Yeah, moderation is ok. The poor suffer from these three more than anyone. It is a false hope, it is a false economy, it does not build up people, nor does it build up our state or nations.

    The current super majority in Montpelier could care less,about the poor, women, children or families. This is yet another example of those connected making millions off the backs of Vermont’s poor. This is the socialist game plan, it’s what they do best.

    American loving democrats and conservative republicans need to get this ship going in the right direction, we seem to have gotten stuck on the rock of socialism and its caused much damage to our state.

    • Yeah, maybe if VT was a little friendlier to industry we could generate some decent revenue/jobs for people. They say we don’t have the infrastructure- maybe we could start building it?

  6. Pot Promoters have promised ” Revenue ” for the State and that maybe, but if anyone
    thinks that Vermonter Farmers are going to reap any major profits………Well

    I have a bridge to sell you……………..Isn’t growing & selling pot still a federal Offense ??

  7. Well, what the hell do you think will happen? Billions of dollars are at stake, and flatlander scumbags are not going to allow small Vermont entrepreneurs to walk home with all the bacon. Out-of-state interests have been lobbying for years to show Vermont what a bonanza we have, just for the taking. Believe that if you wish, but remember that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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