Hartford retail cannabis forum stirs debate over economic benefit, public health risks

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/15/2021 4:40:14 AM
Modified: 12/15/2021 4:48:14 AM

HARTFORD — Bennington, Burlington and Brattleboro have approved it. So have Windsor, Strafford and more than 20 other Vermont communities.

And chances are, Hartford Selectboard Vice Chair Joe Major expects, voters in Hartford will have to decide whether they want to approve it, too.

The “it” in this instance is retail sale of recreational marijuana, which the Vermont Legislature legalized — and Gov. Phil Scott let pass into law — effective in October 2022.

“There is a strong possibility that Hartford will ask its residents on (Town Meeting Day) of March 2022 if they want to opt in to allow cannabis sales in Hartford,” Major said in introducing the topic at a town hall discussion Monday night at Hartford High School.

The meeting, organized by the Selectboard and the Hartford Community Coalition, featured a panel of local experts on the issue so that voters “could make an informed decision before going into the voter booth,” Major said.

Like the statewide debate surrounding the legalization of recreational cannabis itself a few years ago — Vermont’s law requires cities and towns to “opt in” for retail sales to be allowed within their borders — the question in Hartford is polarizing and elicits impassioned arguments for and against.

But there was little agreement, even on the facts, among experts on the panel.

A claim that retail cannabis sales would work to keep down opioid use and provide a boost to the local economy, including jobs for younger workers, was met by claims that property values declined near dispensaries and that cannabis poses increased health risks to minors.

Perhaps more decisive, an expectation of added tax revenue for Hartford is not supported by current tax code. Hartford voters five years ago approved a local option sales tax of 1% on rooms, meals and alcohol, but it does not include other retail sales — including marijuana.

Proponents felt certain, however, that cannabis sales would still provide an economic benefit locally.

“The conversation is basically the same in every town, which is, do we want a store?” said David Silberman, a Middlebury attorney and leading voice in the state for cannabis legalization who was elected high bailiff of Addison County in 2020. “In my town, the business community was largely in favor, in particular the downtown merchants, because they want the foot traffic.”

Regardless of whether an individual town approves store sales, a neighboring community may do so, he pointed out, so “folks are going to get cannabis one way or another.”

“Personally, I’d rather if they get it tested, labeled and assured for quality,” he said.

Even if the town does not have a local option tax to capture cannabis revenue, there are ancillary benefits to the local economy, said Stephanie Waterman, who owns White River Growpro, which sells cultivation supplies.

Waterman, who with her husband has run their White River Junction business since 2014, said she is weighing whether to obtain a “retail nursery license” and called cannabis legalization “an opportunity for job growth in town, particularly in attracting young people, which is a problem in Vermont in general.”

Besides employees needed for retail, Waterman said other cannabis-related jobs will include “well-paying” positions in finance — “there’s a lot of cash to be dealt with in these businesses,” she noted — cultivation, lab testing, processing and “budtenders.”

“In the model we were looking at it would bring 25 new jobs in the first few months and growing from there,” she said. “That’s significant.”

The Vermont Cannabis Control Board, which has been created to regulate the cannabis industry in the state, will begin accepting applications to approve and license cannabis cultivators, processors, testing labs, wholesalers and retailers in the spring. Retailers are the last in line, however, with applications accepted beginning in September and the first licenses expected to be issued in October, according to the Control Board.

The positives of allowing local cannabis sales, however, were challenged by professionals in the medical and social service fields, as well as some in the audience who cast a skeptical eye on industry-supplied data and a cautious approach.

“When the (cannabis) industry is the one that’s telling you how it all works and promising you, that you’re going to make money as a town ... and your property values are going to go up and you’re going to have high-paying jobs ... you have to realize that’s all speculative,” said Alan Budney, a professor of psychiatry and biomedical data science at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine who researches cannabis use disorder.

When Budney called retail cannabis shops “basically a drug store” and raised the question of the risk they pose to underage consumption, some audience members erupted in protests.

“You think the 22-year-olds aren’t going try to sell it to the 18-year-olds and 18-year-olds aren’t going to try to buy it from the store —” said Budney, before he could finish the sentence and being interrupted by attendees shouting, “Whoa” and leading the Selectboard’s Major to interject “Stop! Stop!” to the audience.

Like alcohol and vaping, minors often have their own assumptions about cannabis, warned Janet Potter, student assistance program counselor with Hartford schools, and people need to recognize the public responsibility that would attend easier access to cannabis.

“It’s not about if we can access it or not. It’s about if we can educate people on it, because right now I’m hearing kids say weed is not a drug, it’s a plant. I’m hearing them say weed isn’t dangerous, it’s healthy. It’s like eating your greens,” Potter said. “I mean, we need a whole lot of education.”

Audience members were no less divided than the panelists.

Miriam Wood, of White River Junction, who said she is seeking to open a dispensary in Vermont, framed the issue of legalized sales as one that would lead to greater public safety, not less.

“It’s imperative to me that our streets are safe and that this is done in a safe manner and done respectfully and responsively. ... The stores are going to open one place or another and I would hope to be able to open in Hartford. And I think that it would be good for our town,” Wood said.

But Hartford Selectboard member Lannie Collins, who was in the audience, said it is a case of “show me the money.”

“If we can’t make money as a town off the sale of it — which is what the lure is to this that I’ve seen — I don’t understand what the benefit is,” Collins said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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