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Marijuana Advocates Warn Against Overregulation at Hartford Talk

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/6/2018 11:55:50 PM
Modified: 12/10/2018 6:22:26 PM

Hartford — More than a dozen Vermonters who are proponents of a legal marijuana market urged state officials on Thursday to not overregulate a potential industry and keep it true to Vermont’s values.

Their comments came at a public meeting that followed the recent release of three reports by the Governor’s Marijuana Advisory Commission, which examined roadway safety, education and prevention, and taxation and regulation of a legal market.

“Everyone is talking about making it easy for the little guy to get in and cash in. I think that is imperative for a small state like Vermont,” said Hartford resident Jonathan Rugg, who owns New England Construction Engineering. “I want to see the fortunes that could be made in Vermont in this new tax-and-regulate market remain in Vermont, and not be regulated to corporate fat cats coming in from Colorado and swooping down.”

White River Growpro owner Stephanie Waterman agreed.

“That’s what Vermont is about — craft growers, farmers and producers who can make a modest living selling directly to the public,” she said.

Thursday night’s meeting was the last of three public sessions that provided a place for people to comment on the commission’s reports. By Dec. 15, the commission will make recommendations to Gov. Phil Scott on what a “regulatory and revenue system” for a marijuana market could or should look like in Vermont.

The entire process started in September 2017, when Scott signed an executive order that created the commission to home in on the topic. He broke that commission down into three subcommittees, which met several times over the past year and prepared the draft reports, which provided insight into hundreds of aspects of a legal market.

The roadway safety subcommittee examined drugged driving and put forth recommendations to help with roadway safety. The education and prevention subcommittee eyed ways to measure impacts on public health and keep pot out of the hands of minors. The taxation and regulation subcommittee looked at approaches for selling and taxing marijuana for recreational use, and it also looked at “third-party liability issues” like banking, zoning and insurance, according to the state’s website.

Taxing and Regulating

The taxation and regulation committee suggests creating a structure that would allow for a private industry to develop the market, something the attendees on Thursday night applauded. The state would act as the “gatekeeper and enforcer,” according to the report.

The committee suggests taxing marijuana retail sales with a new 20 percent excise tax and the existing 6 percent sales tax. The 1 percent local option sales tax also would apply in certain jurisdictions.

Those figures didn’t sit well with some at the meeting.

“A 27 percent tax, which is ultimately what we are talking about, is onerous,” said Vershire resident Nick Karabelas, of Green Mountain Consulting.

“Twenty-seven percent could lead to more of a black market,” said Tom Massey, owner of the adult novelty and smoke shop chain Goodstuff.

The committee recommends five license categories: cultivator, processor, retailer, transporter and testing. It also suggests putting in place strong protections for consumers, such as requiring clear labeling and packaging that contains dosages and potency per serving.

It recommends creating a new “board of control,” like the state Department of Liquor and Lottery, which would regulate the marketplace. It suggests giving municipalities local control through zoning, allowing towns and cities to set rules that govern if and where owners can set up shop.

If municipalities can opt out of allowing marijuana businesses in their towns, Karabelas said any state revenue from taxation should stay in the towns where the businesses reside.

Karabelas likened a potential pot market to Vermont’s robust maple syrup or craft beer industry.

Roadway Safety

In the roadway safety committee’s report, officials suggested the state engage in intensive data collection before launching a taxed and regulated market.

“Absent the collection of baseline data, Vermonters may never fully understand the impacts of legalization, if any, in this state,” the committee wrote.

The committee also recommends setting an impairment threshold for operating a motor vehicle, as well as putting in place an impairment testing mechanism. One option could be adopting a per se limit, like the .08 threshold for alcohol, or adopting a “zero-tolerance” policy.

It also suggests implementing an oral fluid test, something an officer can perform on the roadside to test for the presence of marijuana in a person’s system.

Nick Farnham, of Williamstown, called that type of test problematic, saying it’s an “infringement issue.”

“They have to find a better way,” he said. “They shouldn’t be taking DNA to get those levels.”

He and others also cast doubt on the current method police use to test for impairment in drivers, absent alcohol. Drug recognition experts, or DREs, look for cues that can help determine whether a driver is impaired.

Karabelas called the DRE testing subjective and questioned whether a separate test for marijuana impairment is even necessary, saying there isn’t one for Ambien or Xanax. If one is necessary, he said, police, through the DREs, already have the tools to test for marijuana impairment.

Education and Prevention

The education and prevention subcommittee started its report with a statistic that Vermont has some of the highest rates in the country for marijuana use among youth.

“Prevention must be a top priority,” the report said, adding that funding must be available to help with that. The committee suggested $7 million to fund “substance misuse prevention.”

It also advocated for the same policies or laws that limit tobacco and alcohol use for minors, such as age restrictions and banning smoking in public places.

“I think we need to keep it out of the hands of children,” Karabelas said. “But at the same time, we are giving 8-year-olds amphetamines.”

The committee suggests banning retail sales of products infused with marijuana — such as edibles in the forms of cookies or gummy bears — in order to prevent youth from being attracted to them.

That contrasted with the taxation and regulation committee’s report, which also discussed edibles, saying it opposes subjecting them to the 9 percent meals tax.

Commission Co-Chairman Tom Little acknowledged after the meeting that there still are some topics to work out before the final report goes to the governor later this month.

Vermont was the first state to approve recreational marijuana through its Legislature, meaning users 21 and older can possess up to an ounce of pot as well as six plants — two mature and four immature.

A taxed and regulated market would be the next step.

“Let the citizens of Vermont that were formerly considered criminals become entrepreneurs,” said Rob McFadden, of Gaysville. “Our state needs it; citizens of the state need it.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at or 603-727-3248.

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