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Lawmakers offer updates on marijuana legislation

At community meeting in Townshend, legislators discuss building marijuana policy and funding prevention programs for the long term

TOWNSHEND—Town officials, school staff, substance abuse prevention experts, and community members gathered with local lawmakers for a breakfast meeting at the Townshend Church — one that started with an invite from West River Valley Thrives to discuss zoning and marijuana policy.

As the group gathered over coffee and muffins, the conversation soon shifted to how the Legislature builds policy and the need for sustained, flexible prevention funding.

State Reps. Kelly Pajala, I-Londonderry, Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, and Emily Long, D-Newfane, joined state Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, for the robust discussion on marijuana policy on June 24.

Confusion existed over legislative efforts to tax and regulate recreational marijuana, as well as how the Legislature plans to fund auxiliary needs such as prevention or law enforcement.

Marijuana bill in committee, but prevention bill is law

White explained that the Senate has passed some form of recreational marijuana tax and regulation bill five times. A final bill has yet to make through the House.

The lawmakers explained that the current incarnation — which did not pass the House this session — differs from its predecessors in that it pertains only to taxing and regulating recreational marijuana.

The Legislature has separated other issues, such as prevention and medical access to the drug, White said.

For example, Act 13, which was signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott on June 20, focuses on prevention. Law enforcement and roadside safety issues were similarly separated and dealt with by the Legislature’s transportation committees, said White.

White also said that the tax and regulation bill, now sitting in the House Ways and Means Committee, also contains provisions designed to help municipalities create a recreational marijuana market — or not — that works at the local level.

The proposed bill, passed by the Senate, contains a 2-percent local-option sales tax that towns can impose on marijuana-related businesses.

The proposed legislation also offers towns five types of licenses, as well as an “opt out” clause that works similarly to how the state deals with alcohol.

“There are some dry towns in Vermont, but you probably don’t know that,” White said. (Specifically, Athens, Baltimore, Holland, Maidstone, and Weybridge prohibit the sales of all alcohol.)

In other words, a town can vote to ban the growing, processing, or selling of recreational marijuana altogether.

Pajala, who serves on the House Committee on Human Services, said that this session her committee worked on the prevention bill with an eye towards building efforts that apply to all substances rather than focusing only on specific drugs.

One of the provisions in Act 13 calls for a creating a Substance Misuse Prevention Advisory Council, which will replace the state’s existing Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council. The bill also creates a new staff position: the director of substance misuse prevention.

Finally, the new law will replace the Tobacco Evaluation and Review Board with a new board with a broader focus: the Controlled Substances and Pain Management Advisory Council.

Pajala added that the House Committee on Human Services also recognized that across Vermont coalitions worked hard to reduce substance misuse. The committee also recognized that these partnerships were often forced to fight over the same pot of dollars from federal sources.

As a remedy, the prevention law directs the new board to investigate the possibility of a state-level funding mechanism so individual groups won’t have to fight one another for the necessary funds.

White: factors point to benefits of regulation, taxation

Newfane Planning Commission member Ken Estey said that though the state had done a great job of outlining the benefits of a taxed and regulated recreational marijuana system, he still had concerns about the downside of such a market and its effect on a community’s health — especially when it comes to retail shops.

White responded that early testimony and studies on legalizing marijuana show that approximately 80,000 Vermonters already smoke marijuana and they risked criminal records to do so.

Also, kids who testified to the Legislature said it was easier for them to get marijuana than alcohol even as it exists in an underground economy.

Finally, because marijuana isn’t regulated, those who buy it have no idea “what’s in it.”

White found these factors concerning and pointed to the importance of taxing and regulating the substance.

Some towns in Windham County have already come to a consensus about how they will treat a regulated market. Dover and Wilmington voters have both had such conversations, although each has taken its own path. [See sidebar.]

Prevention programs cite need for stable funding

Audience members also expressed concern about how the state would use the revenue generated from a regulated recreational marijuana market.

White spoke in favor of funneling new monies into the General Fund and allowing the appropriation committees to decide how that money best serves the state.

Several audience members spoke against this idea, preferring that revenues be earmarked specifically for prevention, education, and law enforcement.

Lions Club member and contractor Tom Abbotts summed up the sentiments of several audience members who expressed the importance of prevention efforts.

He said that prevention efforts up front save heartache and money down the road.

“We’re dealing with these kids before the horse is out of the barn,” Abbotts said.

JoEllen Tarallo, executive director of the Center for Health and Learning in Brattleboro, outlined some of Vermont’s multiple struggles that are rooted in substance misuse.

For example, she said, compared to the rest of the country, Vermont has a high number of teens who binge drink.

Meanwhile, Tarallo said that prevention is a community-wide, long-term “continuum of care.” It requires engagement across the whole community from parents, to teens, to kids, to elders.

That must happen, she said, because the community as a whole sets the tone on what is normal, harmful, or harmless regarding substance use.

Tarallo said that Vermont needs a “systematic approach” where communities have a single vision and move in the same direction. She also said she’d like to see more funds funneled through to the local level and that programs should include data collection and program results.

Unfortunately, in Tarallo’s opinion, the way prevention efforts are commonly funded through grants, “is challenging.”

“We cannot engage and grow,” she said.

“We need to think beyond grants,” Tarallo said. “We have to have some form of sustainable funding.”

West River Valley Thrives Executive Director Steve Tavella echoed Tarallo’s comments and added that the funding needs to be flexible enough that all communities can design customized programs to fit their respective needs and socioeconomic conditions.

Along with jobs and early intervention programs, communities also need to ask, “Do people have hope?” Tavella said.

A work in progress

In Townshend, Sibilia reminded the audience that until a bill is signed into law, it is still in progress.

She equated passing a bill to a math problem: Bills pass when the extent of policy change attracts enough people willing to vote in its favor.

Sibilia reminded audience members they could visit the Legislature’s website (legislature.vermont.gov) for more information about the status of any bill and where it stands in the legislative process, including which committee is handling it.

She also recommended people reach out to the appropriate committee with feedback or formal testimony.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #516 (Wednesday, June 26, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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