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Vermont legal cannabis growth will need healthy soil

The Senate proposed that a small percentage of the cannabis taxation would go to local governments, who are key partners in the marketplace’s success, but when that provision landed in the House, it was stripped from the bill

Tim Wessel serves in his fifth year on the Brattleboro Selectboard, after serving as both chair and vice-chair; he also serves as a member of the state’s Cannabis Control Board’s Advisory Sub-Committee on Compliance and Enforcement. He writes periodically on the convergence of politics and policy in Windham County.

Brattleboro

A number of people, from Aristotle to Jean-Jacques Rousseau to John Chardin, are credited with a good quote: “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

I always try to keep this wisdom in mind when I am working toward a policy goal that is encumbered by far too many missteps and seems to be taking longer than is bearable, remembering that reaching the goal will produce a sweet and nourishing reward.

I’ve been thinking about this quote lately while participating in the Cannabis Control Board Advisory Committee’s multiple meetings as we have been trying to find the best paths to recommend to the board.

This particular process has been moving rapidly due to the very tight timeline in which the CCB has been charged with completing its work, but that’s only because our state has been working on this effort for over six years now. Many Vermonters who are in favor of a legal marijuana marketplace have been tasting the bitterness of patience for years now.

* * *

Windham County Sen. Jeanette White first unveiled a legalization bill in 2015. While that bill had some stark differences given the status of other states’ own movements in legalization efforts, she should be appreciated for both planting the seed that will eventually bear fruit and for having a big influence in the pruning and care of the growth that was desperately needed along the way.

As always happens when multiple people with multiple interests and constituencies have a hand in any effort, much has changed since 2015, including a provision that would have allowed for limited on-premise consumption in cannabis “lounges” — a feature that I would have preferred had stayed intact over the years.

But such is the result of the confluence and conflict of politics and policy, especially when that process has stretched out for so long and with so many involved in the grafting and the trimming of the maturing marketplace.

Along the way, the unhealthy relationship between state and local governments has not provided the best soil in which to grow this new legal cannabis reality.

In Vermont, we are not a home rule state but rather are burdened with Dillon’s rule, which creates a patriarchal relationship between state and local needs. Instead of operating in a sensible way, which would allow local municipalities to operate fairly independently unless they attempt something strictly forbidden in state statute, in a Dillon’s rule state, local governments are limited to only those actions that have been pre-approved, or get approved, by our legislature.

Local voters and Selectboards can make changes only if “mommy and daddy say so” from Montpelier. This reality tends to poison quite a few good initiatives and sensible ideas being enacted at the local level, as any Selectboard member is fully aware.

But when it comes to the current legislation in Vermont, Dillon’s Rule also has produced the poor soil in which legal cannabis is attempting to thrive.

White’s efforts on the Senate side proposed that a small percentage of the cannabis taxation would go to local governments, who are key partners in the marketplace’s success, but when that provision landed in the House, it was stripped from the bill.

Somehow, it seems our House Ways and Means Committee, in particular, has an aversion to sharing revenue with municipalities, even though Vermont’s towns, cities, and villages will host both retail and growing establishments. These local governments will be dealing with the issues that will naturally come up in the process.

* * *

The CCB, to its credit, took a hard look at the numbers and returned a recommendation that the excise taxation share be put back in the legislation and enacted before the marketplace goes forward.

Board members pointed out that not only do all other states with legal cannabis share a percentage of state taxes with local towns, but further stated, “Allowing local governments to generate revenue from local businesses will encourage municipalities to opt in to allowing cannabis retailers, improving access for consumers and, in turn, reduce illicit market activity.”

Is there evidence that Vermont municipalities are less than enthusiastic with how the state Legislature has treated the relationship that should be symbiotic rather than parental?

Absolutely.

Just look at how many have actually voted to opt in to hosting cannabis establishments so far. As of Nov. 30, of Vermont’s 256 municipalities, only about 30 so far have definitively voted to participate.

And many of the ones that have opted in, like Brattleboro, already have a 1-percent local option sales tax in place to at least help a bit on the retail sales side.

As the law stands now, this will leave more than 200 communities in Vermont without cannabis growers or retailers, and I wonder if this result will produce the millions in tax revenue that our statewide leaders are projecting to come from the endeavor.

* * *

In Sen. White’s own recent Reformer opinion piece, in response to mine in early November, she said, “Vermont towns must share in the gain from these new funds.”

I imagine this experience must be very trying for her patience after these many years of attempting to grow sweet fruit for Vermont, while some are making the soil conditions difficult for proper growth of the marketplace.

I’ve just received word that the Senator has submitted a bill that would divide the 14-percent excise tax — 10 percent to the state and 4 percent to towns. Anyone who wants to see a successful, fair, and collaborative cannabis marketplace should support this legislation.

I hope that when the Legislature reconvenes in a few months, those members of the House who are reluctant to see municipalities and their taxpayers as partners can look past their parental attitudes in 2022 and return to the Senate’s version.

If they can correct this injustice and understand that the people and municipalities of Vermont deserve to share the revenue for their role in the cannabis marketplace creation, we might all be able to forget the bitterness of patience and enjoy the fruit at the end of this long endeavor.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #641 (Wednesday, December 1, 2021). This story appeared on page C1.

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