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State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, and Will Raap, founder of Gardener’s Supply, led a discussion on marijuana legalization in Vermont on July 27 at the River Garden.

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Marijuana policy ‘the Vermont way’

River Garden meeting draws passionate crowd to hear state senator, advocate speak on developing legislation that could profoundly affect the underground agricultural crop

BRATTLEBORO—Vermont lawmakers might consider legislation to legalize cannabis in 2016 following in the footsteps of states like Washington and Colorado.

At a conversation on legalizing marijuana that drew a large, well-informed, and passionate audience to the River Garden on July 27, speakers highlighted potential benefits of legalization like economic development and job creation.

The discussions also pointed to unanswered questions.

How can communities or leaders be persuaded to speak about a stigmatized issue? Can Vermont balance state-level legalization with federal prohibition?

If different marijuana rules exist for Vermonters and non-residents, how will the tourism industry follow laws? Can the state develop laws that will deter underage use? How will local producers protect themselves against corporations looking for a quick buck?

Senator Jeanette White (D-Putney), who chairs the Senate Committee on Government Operations, told the audience of approximately 50 people that the legislature hoped to prepare a bill by Jan. 3, 2016, when lawmakers return to the Statehouse.

Ideally, the bill will pass that spring, by the end of the legislative session.

White and Will Raap, founder of Gardener’s Supply Company in Burlington and a steering committee member of Vermont Cannabis Collaborative (VTCC), hosted the meeting. White and Rapp fielded questions and concerns from the audience.

The issue on White and Raap’s lips was how to legalize cannabis “the Vermont way.”

According to a press release, VTCC looks to support the creation of a local cannabis policy permeated by “Vermont values,” one that “achieves the greatest contribution to Vermont’s needs in economic sectors, including medical, recreational, tourism, agricultural, and specialty foods.”

“VTCC is currently collecting ideas to inform our fall 2015 development of a statewide strategic plan to present to the Legislature for an emerging Vermont cannabis industry,” said Raap.

“We see current and future small farmers as an integral part of cannabis legalization, and are seeking ideas and input from all interested Vermonters on this issue,” he added.

Raap explained that a legal marijuana industry could bolster all segments of Vermont, from economic development, to agriculture, to education, and to tourism.

He posed the question: How does the state transform what has existed as a black market and invisible industry into a productive, healthy, and visible economic engine?

Vermont has the opportunity to create a thoughtful system, Rapp said.

A cohesive industry in Vermont can translate into new jobs including growing, processing, distributing, and extracting, he said.

Vermont Technical College has a horticulture program with only 12 students, Raap continued. A new marijuana industry could draw more students, specifically young people, to the program.

‘Not simply a binary choice’

Legalizing marijuana is not a new conversation in Vermont. In 2011, the Legislature authorized the creation of medical-marijuana dispensaries. In 2013, it decriminalized the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for personal use.

Earlier this year, according to provisions in the medical marijuana legislation, the RAND Drug Policy Research Center submitted a 218-page report to the state Secretary of Administration on the possible paths to legalization and the pros and cons of such policy.

According to the report, the federal government still outlaws marijuana but will tolerate some state-level legalization.

The report writers stressed that given the invisible nature of much of Vermont’s current marijuana industry, facts and figures were based on the best information available at the time.

According to the report, the use of cannabis in Vermont is among the highest in the nation.

At the time of publication, 12 percent of the state’s population older than 12 years old and nearly 30 percent of those ages 18 to 25 reported using marijuana in the previous month. People younger than 21 accounted for approximately 20 percent of users.

The report writers estimated that Vermonters spend between $125 million to $225 million on marijuana, while enforcing “marijuana prohibition” is around $1 million.

“Legalization is not simply a binary choice between making the production, sale, and possession of the drug legal on the one hand and continuing existing prohibitions on the other,” the report said.

“Legalization encompasses a wide range of possible regimes, distinguished along at least four dimensions: the kinds of organizations that are allowed to provide the drug, the regulations under which those organizations operate, the nature of the products that can be distributed, and price,” added the writers.

Both White and Raap said that Vermont must take the opportunity to improve upon policy, taking into account lessons from how other states, like Colorado, legalized marijuana.

Vermont stands to become the first state to legalize marijuana through legislation rather than a citizen referendum, Raap said.

Washington state’s and Colorado’s pathways to legalization and their aftermaths have been chaotic, said Raap, who pointed out that Vermont’s process, if thoughtful, has the potential for smooth sailing.

Commercial opportunities

A healthy foundation of agriculture and small businesses exist in this state, and a new marijuana industry can build off of that, he added.

“We can’t do commodity stuff well, but we can do artisanal niche stuff really well,” Raap said.

Raap hopes the new industry will also include homegrown, local businesses.

Cannabis is an amazing plant, said Raap. “A very small fraction of the potential is being realized right now,” he said, speaking about the medicinal potential of marijuana.

But federal legislation around the plant has limited researchers from delving fully into the plant’s possibilities or challenges.

What if the University of Vermont or Vermont Technical College develop formal research programs, supporting a legal marijuana industry just as UVM’s Proctor Maple Research Center does for the state’s maple industry, Raap wondered.

He anticipates that multiple businesses will grow around the cultivation of marijuana: creating LED lighting for the plants, developing new strains of plants bred to thrive in the Vermont climate, processing, distribution systems, or new equipment developing.

Raap sees opportunities to bolster the tourism industry. In his opinion, cannabis would give the state one more way to compete with other ski states.

A legal marijuana market would also offer an opportunity for smart banks and credit unions to capture new market share, he said. Financial capital has stymied some marijuana businesses because it’s hard for banks to lend money within the federal framework, Raap said.

The Vermont State Employees Credit Union (VSECU) has found some options within the federal framework, he said.

The challenge will be how to create a vital industry off what already exists in the state, he said — how to scale it up effectively.

“What’s better, to have something pass next year or have the perfect bill pass next year?” said Raap.

Raap liked the idea of creating regional sectors to promote the industry’s growth statewide, so that all regions benefit and not simply Chittenden County, where most economic development occurs.

“There’s a lot of passion in southern Vermont,” said Raap after the meeting.

Raap believes that legalizing marijuana won’t increase usage.

The trick is threefold: identifying populations vulnerable to misusing the product, understanding the growing industry, and managing risk, he said.

He hopes to put a good industry into the legislative process.

“Let’s get creative,” Raap said as his ending words to the audience.

Supporting small growers

The RAND Report made a point of bringing an underground market into the sunlight and keeping cultivation local, said White, noting that the goal of her legislative committee is to support smaller local growers over large corporations — the Vermont way.

The Legislature has a lot to think about, White said.

A memo from the federal Department of Justice provides the framework that the state will use to stay within the federal guidelines, which are more stringent than Vermont’s.

The memo limits interstate commerce, she said. But meanwhile, if the state limits what non-residents can buy, then those visitors could possibly sue the state, she added.

At this early stage, White thought Vermonters will be allowed to purchase 1 ounce of pot and non-residents will be allowed to purchase {1/2} an ounce.

Homegrown-only won’t support an industry, White said — farmers will need a legal way to sell their crop.

The Legislature is investigating a permitting system that will help bring money to the state and be easy for small businesses to navigate. No costs have been decided upon yet, but White hopes lawmakers will avoid instituting a high fee structure to prevent the market from going back underground.

“We have to craft a bill that meets the needs of people who are currently growing or using,” she said. But she noted that the Legislature must also craft a bill that will pass.

Well-informed and passionate

The audience asked questions about the possibility of bringing more doctors into the legislative process. They also discussed health concerns for vulnerable populations in the state and youth usage.

Some audience members asked about different business models for the new industry, like benefit corporations (sometimes called B-corps).

As the discussion reached an impassioned pitch, one audience member in the back row said to those within earshot, “Somebody needs to pass around a joint.”

Audience member Stuart Savel was one of many who took issue with the RAND Report.

The report assumes that all the marijuana in Vermont belongs to “an evil underground” market, said Savel, a member of what he described as the ad-hoc group Home Grown Vermont.

Local growers in Vermont are some of the best cultivators in the country, he continued. He asked that the Legislature protect local growers so that large companies don’t push the little guys off the playing field.

Support cultivation first, Savel told White, and then develop a distribution system.

One man in the audience called out his disgust with the marijuana dispensaries.

They’re not any good, the man shouted. As a local grower, he produced better cannabis for 11 neighbors dealing with medical issues than the dispensaries, he claimed.

The money must stay local, or Vermont will lose its local producers, he warned.

Another audience member, who would only share her first name, Maryanne, also took issue with the RAND Report, as well as White’s comments and the state’s legalization efforts.

She described the group behind the RAND Report as a “conservative think tank,” “warmongers,” and “the pot Nazis.”

Maryanne said that among her qualifications to speak to the issue is her experience as a nurse practitioner and a master’s degree in economics and public policy.

In her opinion, White was in over her head.

“So talk shit to me Senator,” said Maryanne, who credits marijuana with helping to cure her rare breast cancer.

One man in the audience advised White and Raap that some of the audience’s rancor stemmed from a fear of being pushed out of the industry if it becomes legal.

“I can get pushed out of something I’m passionate about,” he said.

White responded that this was why the state needs the public to weigh in on any new legislation.

Former State Representative and self-described pot smoker Daryl Pillsbury thanked White for her many years working to legalize cannabis.

Noting that all in the audience had their own respective vision, he said that it’s important that people show up and support the Legislature’s work.

Pillsbury warned that it’s important that this support happens — and soon — because next year the state will probably cut the budget.

“And guess who will bear the brunt?” he asked. The most vulnerable Vermonters.

Pillsbury urged the state to get money into a new marijuana program.

“And let’s stop making me a criminal,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #317 (Wednesday, August 5, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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