MONTPELIER — In an advisory statement released Monday, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office declared that giving out “free” marijuana with other sold items is illegal under state law.
“Any transfer of marijuana for money, barter, or other legal consideration remains illegal under Vermont law. This includes a commercial transaction (i.e., an exchange of goods or services for money) with a purported “gift” of marijuana,” the statement read.
Examples given by the office of Attorney General TJ Donovan include gifting marijuana with bracelets, t-shirts or even paid delivery.
Recreational marijuana possession became legal in Vermont earlier this month. However, the law does not create a commercialized market, meaning it’s up to smokers to grow plants on their own. They also may give marijuana as a gift, but not as a commercial transaction.
Home-growing is a big production, costing growers as much as $2,000 for the right equipment. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to purchase weed from the streets.
“It’s illegal to sell it or to dispense it,” Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos told True North.
Facos also said if someone is caught with marijuana and claims it was grown at home, officers “have a variety of ways that [they] would investigate.”
In searching for ways to skirt the law’s prohibition on pot sales, some marijuana smokers have exploited a loophole in the law and given away the drug for free with the sale of other items, or for a delivery fee.
Two groups opposed to marijuana legalization, Physicians, Families & Friends for a Better Vermont and Smart Approaches for Marijuana, issued a statement urging police to crack down on lawbreakers in light of the attorney general’s ruling.
“Vermont police and prosecutors must follow the Attorney General’s direction and aggressively apply Vermont state law to arrest and prosecute Vermont’s illegal drug trade, including the “gifting” of marijuana for profit,” the statement from the groups read.
The anti-pot groups also are calling on lawmakers to “remove the loophole drug dealers would exploit in their efforts to further spread addiction, with all of its awful consequences, throughout our state.”
As written, Act 86 allows adults to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and cultivate two mature and four immature plants. Growing the plants is the only legal means to obtain marijuana. According to the marijuana information site leafly.com, the equipment and supplies necessary to grow at home costs an average $1,948.
Cost is not the only hurdle to growing your own greens. According to a report by Forbes, the attention to detail required to grow marijuana far exceeds the average gardening venture — so much so that the commercial market is anticipating that growers will need a college degree in horticulture.
“We need someone who can understand scientific reasoning and how a plant actually works and how to control it in a different environment,” professional grower Sierra McDonald told Forbes.
These and other hurdles have led to the “gifting” phenomena in Vermont. In other parts of the country where marijuana has become legalized without a commercial market, the same gifting market has emerged.
“Three pot delivery services in D.C. are circumventing the illegality of selling weed by peddling other products instead – and including cannabis as a free gift,” DCRefined.com reported in March of last year.
The DCRefined story lists examples where pot smokers buy Nutella or peanut butter cookies for $60 and walk away with “free” weed.
A comprehensive tax-and-regulate model for Vermont failed to pass in 2018, but many believe commercialization is inevitable due to trends across the nation.
“We see the writing on the wall,” House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said after Republican-led attempts to block legalization failed in the 2018 legislative session.
Gov. Phil Scott signed the bill into law in January, and lawmakers expect that an effort for a tax-and-regulate market will be taken up next legislative session.
In other legalization concerns, Chief Facos said that driving under the influence of marijuana is still difficult for police to detect.
“We just don’t have a readily available roadside screening tool yet like we do with alcohol,” he said. He added that the state has DREs (Drug Recognition Experts), but that more tools are needed to keep roads safe from drugged driving.
“There are not enough of those [DREs] around the state at the moment. … It’s a far more in-depth investigation with the person that may be impaired.”
Facos said that right now, even amid concerns that today’s marijuana strains are substantially stronger than those of prior generations, other drugs, particularly opiates, are taking priority for law enforcement.
“Opiates, cocaine and crack cocaine,” he said. “That’s still where most of our resources are.”
That doesn’t mean pot legalization violations will be taken lightly by police. “Colorado has certainly seen an uptick in organized crime related to marijuana grows,” Facos said.
For Vermonters who wish to abide by the law, users are not permitted to smoke in public places, nor are they allowed to smoke in a car — that goes for drivers and passengers.
Employers can continue to test for marijuana and, consequently, punish an employee for testing positive for THC, the plant’s active ingredient which makes people high.