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Marijuana to the North, South: Vt. Grapples With Retail Pot



VtDigger
Saturday, September 29, 2018

Montpelier — Retail sale of cannabis will soon be legal to Vermont’s south and to its north but that won’t be much help to Vermont marijuana buyers, and the state might take a financial hit, some say.

Cannabis possession became legal in Quebec in June and retail sales will begin Oct. 17. In Massachusetts, possession has been legal for two years and the first retail outlets are expected to open by the end of the year. In Vermont, possession of small amounts became legal July 1, but selling remains illegal.

Vermont should move more quickly to implement a regulated market before Vermont residents begin to take advantage of those legal retail options, said Laura Subin, director of Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana.

“This makes it even more inevitable that Vermont will and should move toward a tax and regulate market,” Subin said. “We know Vermonters consume marijuana, so it becomes a question of “Do we want Vermont tax dollars to go to Quebec, Massachusetts, Maine. Do we want that?’ ” she said.

Tax revenue and cannabis tourism dollars for Vermont are also at risk, she said.

Vermont’s current estimate of $15 million to $20 million in yearly revenue from cannabis sales is already lower than the Rand Corp.’s estimate of $20 million to $75 million back in 2015. But Vermont’s decision to lag in moving to a regulated market may continue to bring revenue down.

Gov. Phil Scott says Vermont is not ready for a regulated cannabis market, citing the need for prevention programs and accurate tests for driving under the influence.

“I don’t think we’re ready for a tax and regulation system right now, but we have opportunities to watch what other states are doing. Make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes that they did,” Scott said, in a debate last week with Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Christine Hallquist.

In Quebec, there are plans to open 20 government-operated stores by the end of the year, with an additional 130 stores to be added in the next two to three years.

Under the Quebec law, people 18 years of age or older will be able to buy up to 1 ounce of cannabis at a time from the government-run stores but are not allowed to cultivate plants. Eighteen is also the drinking age in Quebec.

But the penalties for bringing Canadian cannabis across the border to Vermont remain steep. It remains a federal crime in the United States to transport cannabis, medical or recreational, across state lines and international borders — road signs have recently gone up in southern Quebec to remind motorists they cannot bring cannabis across the border.

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said in a statement that it would take enforcement of the law along the Vermont-Quebec border seriously, and if caught “could result in seizure, fines, and arrest.”

The Vermont-Massachusetts border, of course, is not so strenuously guarded.

Vermont State Police spokesperson Adam Silverman was noncommittal about whether state police would enforce the federal law or not.

“Possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational purposes is legal under current Vermont law,” Silverman said in a statement, “and the state police will continue to address marijuana cases under the context and scope of that law regardless what bordering states and provinces decide to do.”

That greater ease of state-to-state border crossing will make Massachusetts’ marijuana retailing have a greater impact on Vermont than Quebec’s, said Jake Perkinson, co-chair of the Marijuana Advisory Commission.

“I think the existence of legalized pot in Canada is more challenging because of the stricter and more precarious position for individuals crossing the border,” Perkinson said, “where in Massachusetts, I don’t see checkpoints checking cars at the border of Massachusetts.”

Massachusetts has issued 15 retail licenses and the Cannabis Control Commission, the governmental oversight division, is meeting the first week of October to decide on final approval of the first recreational cannabis location.

In Massachusetts, anyone 21 years of age or older will be able to buy 1 ounce of cannabis from the state-regulated retailers and, much like Quebec, there is no stipulation against out-of-state residents purchasing cannabis.

Maine voters decided in 2016 to legalize possession of cannabis and retail stores are expected to open in spring.

Perkinson said Massachusetts’ and Quebec’s systems are part of a healthy competitive market.

“I’m not sure what the impact of Massachusetts opening retail shops will have on the dynamics in Vermont. But the assumption is it’s already baked in. Massachusetts will have it, Maine will have, New Hampshire will catch up,” Perkinson said. “I know people are still referencing the Rand report, but that report was contingent on Vermont being the only state with legal cannabis. I think that the reality is that yes, there will be competition but whether that will light more of a fire under people pushing for regulation, I’m not sure if that changes the game at all.”