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Town Meeting 2022: Legal cannabis sales up for a vote in Hartford, Woodstock

  • White River Growpro co-owner Stephanie Waterman, right, hands a sign urging Hartford voters to support the retail sale of cannabis to Selectboard member Kim Souza to place in front of her home while at Revolution, Souza’s vintage and consignment store, in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. Waterman and her husband Kendall Smith hope to get a retail nursery license that would allow them to sell cannabis seeds and clones if the initiative passes. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • White River Growpro co-owner Stephanie Waterman, right, hands a sign urging Hartford voters to support the retail sale of cannabis to Selectboard member Kim Souza to place in front of her home while at Revolution, Souza’s vintage and consignment store, in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. Waterman and her husband Kendall Smith hope to get a retail nursery license that would allow them to sell cannabis seeds and clones if the initiative passes. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • White River Growpro co-owner Stephanie Waterman steps out of a snowbank after placing a sign urging voters to support the retail sale of cannabis in Hartford along VA Cutoff Road near U.S. Route 4 in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. “Vermont is the Green Mountain State for more reason than one,” Waterman said, and she hopes that going forward there is less stigma attached to growing and using cannabis. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

  • White River Growpro co-owner Stephanie Waterman steps out of a snowbank after placing a sign urging voters to support the retail sale of cannabis in Hartford along VA Cutoff Road near U.S. Route 4 in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. “Vermont is the Green Mountain State for more reason than one,” Waterman said, and she hopes that going forward there is less stigma attached to growing and using cannabis. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

  • White River Growpro co-owners Kendall Smith, left, and Stephanie Waterman, center, talk to Mark Volpe, of Randolph, Vt., about the issues small-scale legacy growers face when trying to break into the legal cannabis market in Vermont while he checks out at their store in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • White River Growpro co-owners Kendall Smith, left, and Stephanie Waterman, center, talk to Mark Volpe, of Randolph, Vt., about the issues small-scale legacy growers face when trying to break into the legal cannabis market in Vermont while he checks out at their store in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/20/2022 6:08:33 AM
Modified: 2/20/2022 6:08:13 AM

On March 1, voters in Woodstock and Hartford will decide whether to legalize retail cannabis at Town Meeting.

“Whether or not there is cannabis in our town is not really a question on the ballot. It’s whether we’re going to allow regulated retail dispensaries,” said Kim Souza, who serves on the Hartford Selectboard. “I’m definitely supportive of that if the voters are.”

However, both towns are divided. Some members of the public health community raised concerns about how retailers would advertise and youth access, while some municipal officials expressed frustration about limited local tax revenue and control.

The Vermont Legislature passed a bill, SB 54, which became law in October 2020, to allow cannabis sales to adults ages 21 and older. Municipalities have to opt in before any retail cannabis stores open, although they cannot restrict non-retail cannabis businesses such as cultivators or processors. Retail cannabis includes both dispensaries and nurseries, which could open as soon as October this year.

A burden oran income stream?

When the Woodstock Cannabis Review Committee surveyed residents about legalizing retail cannabis, supporters and detractors split almost evenly. But many agreed that it was important to them that the town garner tax revenue from any sales of the drug.

As state rules now stand, towns will not receive any revenue unless they have a local option tax on retail sales. On March 1, voters in Woodstock will also be voting on an article that would put a 1% local option tax on all retail goods — including cannabis, if legalized. All revenue from the tax would fund capital improvements. The town and village of Woodstock will both vote on retail cannabis; however, only the town will vote on the local option tax. The Village Board of Trustees wanted to avoid accidentally putting a compounded 2% sales tax in the village.

Hartford does not have a local option tax, but Souza said it would be “part of the discussion” if voters legalize retail cannabis.

Meanwhile, the state would profit from the 6% sales tax and a further 14% excise tax. The Vermont Cannabis Control Board, which is overseeing the rulemaking process, projects over $45 million in revenue by 2025. But the rules are still in flux.

The board has recommended that the Legislature direct 1% to 2% of the excise tax to municipalities, in part to increase local support.

Supporters argue that the wider business community might benefit indirectly from retail sales, especially as some tourists want cannabis to be a part of their vacations. However, Seton McIlroy, who serves on the Woodstock Board of Village Trustees and the Woodstock Cannabis Commission, has her doubts, especially if other towns closer to Dartmouth and the state border legalize retail cannabis.

Tory Littlefield, chair of the Woodstock Cannabis Commission, is most concerned about limited local control and revenue.

As the rules stand, towns will not be able to charge more than $100 for a local administration fee, although they could also charge for any standard permitting fees. Meanwhile, annual retail license fees filling state coffers would be in the $1,000-to-$10,000 range. The Vermont Cannabis Control Board argues that this is proportional as the state will handle most of the review process and minimize the burden on local governments.

The Vermont Cannabis Control Board prohibits dispensaries within 500 feet walking distance from a school, a distance that the local municipality could either reduce or increase to 1,000 feet. But towns would have limited control beyond that. Municipalities could not regulate dispensaries separately from other businesses.

And a local permit would only be required if the towns establish a local control commission. Officials from both towns indicated that they would likely establish such commissions if retail cannabis was legalized.

The business perspective

Stephanie Waterman and her husband, Kendall Smith, have been putting up 30 signs around Hartford urging voters to participate in Town Meeting and legalize retail cannabis. She hopes to see a big turnout.

“It motivates a different base,” Waterman said.

She and her husband opened a hydroponics equipment supplier in downtown White River Junction in 2014 and sell to homegrowers. Since then, they have become advocates for legalization. She and other pro-cannabis residents collected about 450 signatures this winter to urge the Selectboard to put retail cannabis on the warning for Town Meeting.

“I view cannabis as a safe alternative for responsible adults,” she said. As she sees it, cannabis faces outsize stigma, especially when a glass of wine in the evening is so socially acceptable.

She also sees legalization as an opportunity to bring underground legacy growers into the legal economy, where they can make money and pay taxes.

“That money is changing hands now,” she said.

And illegal retailers rarely check identification, she added.

Supporting legacy growers is also a priority of the Vermont Cannabis Control Board, which plans to waive some fees for “social equity” applicants including people who have been convicted for selling cannabis.

Waterman argues that a dispensary would bring more tourists to town, especially because White River Junction is at the crossroads of two major highways. She recently bought 788 Hartford Ave. to expand Growpro. In the future, she may use the space as a cannabis nursery.

The public healthperspective

Dr. Alan Budney researches cannabis use disorder at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. He supports legalizing cannabis, but he has his concerns.

“Regulations are just not there yet. And the research is not there to tell us how to regulate it best,” he said.

Studies show that labels on legal cannabis products are often misleading, he said.

For example, the THC (the chemical in cannabis that leads to a high) may be concentrated in just one corner of an edible. And as regulation can be expensive and time-consuming, he questioned the assumption that legal cannabis is always safe cannabis.

When retail cannabis is legal, businesses develop more and more sophisticated products to appeal to consumers, he said.

As with alcohol, many people use cannabis without any problem, while some struggle to stop even as it disrupts their lives, he said. While some research shows that cannabis may help with some medical conditions, that is not the same as proving that it actually works, he added.

Emily Zanleoni, the executive director of the Hartford Community Coalition, is concerned about how retail cannabis in Hartford may affect the youth population she works with.

“When we legalize something like cannabis, we are (are) creating a culture of normative behavior around that substance,” she said.

She is most concerned about retail cannabis reaching Hartford’s under-21 population. She argues that retailers target children when they sell edibles that mimic the packaging of common candies or sodas. She sees cannabis as a big business not unlike tobacco or alcohol.

While any retail dispensaries would only serve adults ages 21 and older, she is still worried about youth access, especially without clear guidelines on safe storage. From her organization’s work with Hartford’s youths, she says she knows that youths tend to get cannabis through their peers — typically older family members or friends — or they steal it from a known user.

She argues for moving more slowly, in part to give the town a chance to update its local ordinances.

Other Upper Valley towns prepare for retail cannabis

Some Upper Valley towns are already preparing for dispensaries. At Town Meeting in 2021, voters in Strafford, Windsor and Randolph legalized retail cannabis. While the Strafford Selectboard has not heard of any inquiries from anyone who may be interested in opening a shop in town, Windsor and Randolph have had inquiries.

In Randolph, there has been interest from both vendors and cultivators, but no one has put their name forward, said Trini Brassard, who chairs the Selectboard. At the board’s last meeting, there was consensus that Randolph should establish a local cannabis control commission.

“We want to be sure that once it’s out there as an allowed use — a use you can get a permit for — that we’re really clear about what the expectations are,” she said.

In Windsor, Ralph Farnsworth, a former car dealer, is getting ready to open a dispensary. He grew up in town and now lives in Newbury, N.H. He has deferred to the town’s preferences, buying a property off of Main Street in the industrial district: 25 Depot Ave., across from the train station and a half-mile from the nearest school.

He will also be cultivating a 5,000-square-foot canopy of cannabis indoors in a warehouse along the Connecticut River. He is still looking for a manufacturer to turn the cannabis he will grow into products such as edibles and cartridges, and he hopes to work with someone local.

“The prohibition is over,” he said. “We figure we get in on the forefront.”

Farnsworth is open about his criminal record. He served six months in a federal prison in 2009 after he took a plea deal related to a conspiracy to sell cocaine years earlier.

“I’m an uneducated, convicted felon. It is what it is,” he said. “I’m hardworking. I’ve taken risks, and I’ve paid for the risk. … I’ve not been in any trouble since that arrest.”

He anticipates growing at least 2,400 pounds of 15 different strains of cannabis each year, which will allow him to cover a $7,500 state licensing fee with ease and sell to other dispensaries in the Upper Valley.

Inside his store, he and his team are working on a Vermont rustic feel, with sanded natural wood so that they can open as soon as they have a license.

He cashed out his life savings to fund his new business, he said. Banks do not finance cannabis businesses. When it’s up and running, he plans to employ 65 to 70 people in the warehouse and another 35 in the store.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.


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