In January, Vermont became the ninth state to legalize marijuana—and the first to end cannabis prohibition through an act of lawmakers, rather than a ballot initiative. But with the law set to take effect on July 1, questions remain about how the recreational system will actually function.
What you need to know
Vermont Governor Phil Scott (R) signed the adult-use legalization bill, H. 511, into law on January 22. The governor said that he had “mixed feelings” about the legislation, but added that he believed “what adults do behind closed doors and on private property is their choice, so long as it does not negatively impact the health and safety of others, especially children.”
The law permits adults 21 and older to:
- Possess up to an ounce of cannabis, or five grams of hashish.
- Grow “two mature and four immature marijuana plants” on private property in a secured enclosure that’s kept out of public sight.
- Those plants wouldn’t count toward the one ounce possession limitation.
- If you don’t own the property, you’d have to get the property owner’s permission before cultivating cannabis.
“Consumption of marijuana in a public place or in a vehicle is prohibited as is possession of an open container of marijuana in a vehicle, and violations are subject to civil penalties,” a summary of the bill text explains. There are also penalties for providing or “enabling consumption” of marijuana to individuals under 21.
The legislation doesn’t explicitly address marijuana “gifting,” which has served as a way to circumvent market restrictions in certain legal jurisdictions like the District of Columbia.
Employers are still allowed to enforce policies against consuming, cultivating or displaying marijuana in the workplace.
Are you an employer with questions about VT's recreational marijuana law that goes into effect 7/1? Today, we released a guidance for employers on how to navigate the law. Comments? email our Civil Rights Unit at [email protected] #vtbusinesseshttps://t.co/Xl955mOZNq
— Vermont AG Donovan (@VTAttorneyGen) June 14, 2018
If an employer has a no-tolerance drug policy, employees can be fired for violating that policy even if they use cannabis outside the workplace. However, the Vermont Attorney General’s office cautioned employers when it comes to penalizing medical cannabis patients suffering from debilitating conditions in a recent guidance report:
“Under [Vermont’s Fair Employment Practices Act], it is unlawful for any employer, employment agency, or labor organization to discriminate against a “qualified individual with a disability.” Discrimination means not only intentional mistreatment of a disabled employee or applicant, but also failure to provide a reasonable accommodation to that individual… employees carrying a medical marijuana card and those dealing with substance abuse issues may be protected under VFEPA’s disability provisions.”
The new system does not provide access to cannabis seeds or products at dispensaries, as is the case in other states where recreational marijuana is legal. And that’s where things start to get tricky.
Where are adult users supposed to obtain cannabis or seeds to grow their own plants if there’s no legal retail system in place? If you’re a registered medical marijuana patient, who does have access to dispensaries that sell cannabis and seeds, then you could hypoathetically circumvent that issue; but for adults outside the medical system, the conflicting regulations could create headaches.
“Legalization advocates argue that people who are interested in growing marijuana probably have access already,” The Burlington Free Press reported. “The main difference after legalization, they say, will be the lifting of penalties and stigma.”
The winding road to non-commercial legalization in Vermont
While Vermont made history in January by becoming the first state to pass a legalization measure through the legislature, it wasn’t necessarily a smooth path to reform. It’s taken about two years, since the state Senate first voted in favor of a tax and regulate legalization bill—which the House ultimately rejected.
Even as recently as April, Vermont lawmakers attempted to rally support for a commercial legalization bill but were defeated in a floor vote. But House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) and others cautioned that the timing wasn’t right, considering the fact that the governor had just signed the non-commercial legalization bill into law just three months prior.
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D) told Vermont Public Radio in April that regardless of the fate of the eleventh-hour effort to move a tax and regulate legalization bill forward, it would only be a matter of time.
“This vote does not reflect the sentiment of the people, and when the sentiment of the people is reflected in this body, it will move forward,” Zuckerman said.
Are medical marijuana patients being left behind as the state prepares to implement its recreational system?
Though adult users won’t have a legal way to obtain cannabis or seeds under the law, there are a number of other differences in how laws apply to medical patients and recreational consumers. For example, adults over 21 are allowed to grow up to six plants outdoors, whereas medical patients can grow up to nine plants—but they’re required to keep their grows indoors.
Also, while harvested cannabis doesn’t count toward a recreational user’s one ounce possession restriction, harvested plants do count toward medical patients two ounce possession restriction.
“I’ve heard concerns from several medical cannabis patients and their loved ones that they cannot get clear guidance from anyone in state government regarding how many plants they are allowed to grow for their own use, and how they may grow them,” Dave Silberman, a Middlebury, Vermont attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate, told Marijuana Moment.
“Many patients are wondering whether these rights can be ‘stacked,’ such that, for example, a married couple consisting of one registered medical patient and one non-patient could legally grow four mature plants (two for “adult use” and two for “symptom relief”),” he said.
There is currently a bill being considered in special session that aims to reconcile some of these regulatory differences, according to The Burlington Free Press. Among other things, the bills seeks to impose “locked container transport” requirements that are currently in effect for medical patients but do not apply to adult users. It would also clarify the state’s prohibition on providing cannabis to individuals under 21 under the recreational system, as medical patients may be under 21 and the law doesn’t offer assurances to medical caregivers that they wouldn’t be penalized under the new law.
“Vermont’s homegrow law is a great first step, but is incomplete,” Silberman said. “Despite the failure to move [a more wide-ranging legalization bill, H. 490] forward this past session, I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to move forward quickly in 2019 with a comprehensive bill to establish a regulated market and clear up the inconsistencies between the current ‘adult use’ and ‘medical’ regimes, as more and more legislators are coming to understand the reality that it’s the same damned cannabis either way.”
In the meantime, beginning on July 1, adults over 21 in Vermont will finally be able to legally use, possess and grow marijuana without a doctor’s recommendation.
Mitch McConnell Presses FDA Nominee On CBD And Hemp
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) met with the nominee to become the next Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner on Wednesday and discussed the need for a regulatory framework for CBD products.
While there are few specific details available about their conversation, McConnell said he emphasized the importance of hemp legalization for Kentucky farmers and pointed out that those producers are also facing challenges given the lack of FDA regulations concerning CBD.
“I look forward to working closely with Dr. Hahn on several important issues for Kentucky,” McConnell said in a press release. “Like many Kentuckians who are taking advantage of hemp’s legalization, I am eager for FDA’s plans to create certainty for CBD products.”
As @senatemajldr, Senator Mitch McConnell advocates for #Kentucky priorities with the Trump Administration and discussed his Tobacco 21 legislation, #hemp, and CBD with President @realDonaldTrump’s nominee for @US_FDA Commissioner: https://t.co/GZhkVgPeFV pic.twitter.com/a0gBs9z42u
— Senator McConnell Press (@McConnellPress) November 20, 2019
The majority leader has previously pressed FDA to issue enforcement discretion guidance that prioritizes action against only CBD companies making especially unfounded medical claims about their products while allowing responsible businesses to continue to market their products as the agency continues to develop rules.
McConnell similarly raised his concerns about the importance of expediting CBD regulations during a separate meeting with Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless in June.
Stephen Hahn, the FDA nominee, was also pressed on CBD issues during a confirmation hearing on Wednesday. Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) noted that there’s wide consumer interest in the cannabis products but stressed that more research is needed, barriers to research should be lifted and public health interests should be balanced with policies that support the industry.
Hahn replied that he believed there’s untapped therapeutic potential in the cannabis compound, but he also agreed that there are “unanswered questions that need to be filled in by data and science and research.”
In related developments, several consumer groups have recently expressed concerns about the current status of the CBD market.
Three groups—National Consumers League, Consumer Federation of America and Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America—announced on Tuesday that they are launching an initiative called “Consumers for Safe CBD” that is designed to “warn the public of the potential risks related to CBD products.”
According to a press release, the coalition will also encourage FDA “to use its existing authority to protect consumers, provide guidance to manufacturers, and encourage further research for FDA-approved CBD treatments.”
Another group, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), launched a citizen petition to FDA last week that implores the agency to quickly develop rules for CBD so that the products can be lawfully marketed as dietary supplements.
“Intense consumer demand and commercial interest has resulted in a flood of CBD products of uncertain quality and unapproved claims already in the marketplace, and this scenario has created an urgent need for FDA action,” CHPA President Scott Melville said in a press release.
“The request in our petition seeks to have FDA utilize the authority it already has to establish a lawful regulatory pathway for manufacturers to bring dietary supplements containing CBD to market,” he said. “Only then will consumers be able to purchase CBD-containing dietary supplements in a manner that ensures product quality, safety, and a level-playing field for enforcement.”
Photo courtesy of Twitter/Senate Majority Leader.
Senators Push USDA To Adopt Five Changes To Proposed Hemp Regulations
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) sent a letter to the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Wednesday, requesting a series of changes to draft rules for hemp that the department released last month.
The senators said they appreciate that USDA issued the proposed regulations, which is a “necessary step to establish a domestic federal hemp production program.” However, they wanted to highlight “several concerns about the unintended and potentially harmful effects this interim final rule would have on hemp production in Oregon and across the country.”
In the letter to Agriculture Sec. Sonny Perdue, they listed five issues with the regulations and suggested potential fixes. Many of the concerns echoed those that stakeholders have submitted to USDA as part of a public comment period the department launched on October 31. Here’s what the senators highlighted:
—As written, the draft rules call for hemp to be tested within 15 days before harvest. Farmers have argued that’s far too little time, and the senators said it presents an “impossible obstacle for growers to overcome.” Oregon regulations require testing within 28 days, so they said USDA should adopt a similar timeline.
—USDA said that testing must be completed at a laboratory registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration. The senators said that will produce a bottleneck and delays for hemp producers, and that independent laboratories such as those operating in Oregon should be allowed to conduct the tests.
—The senators said that USDA should allow for forms of THC concentration testing that do not involve post-decarboxylation and also argued that the congressional intent of hemp legalization was not to require testing of all THC compounds but rather just delta-9 THC in particular.
—USDA requires that testing samples come from the top one-third of the flower portion of the plant. Instead, the senators said, samples should follow established protocol in states like Oregon, which stipulates that samples should be taken from the flowering tops when they’re present and be eight inches long.
—While the Farm Bill defines hemp as cannabis containing no more than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis, USDA gave slight margin of error and considers any plants with more than 0.5 percent THC to be in violation of the regulations. Farmers have called that limitation arbitrary and the senators said it would be more reasonable to set the negligence threshold at 1 percent, if there must be a THC restriction at all.
“Farmers in Oregon and across the country are on the precipice of an agricultural boom that, with the right regulatory framework, stands to boost rural economies in every corner of the country,” they wrote.
Wyden and Merkley have been some of the most vocal proponents of developing USDA regulations that bolster the hemp industry since the passage of the Farm Bill, through which they worked to legalize the crop in the first place. As early as February, Wyden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) were knocking at USDA’s door, urging the department to expedite the rulemaking process.
Read the full senators’ letter to USDA on hemp regulations below:
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
Virginia Attorney General Hosts ‘Cannabis Summit’ To Advance Reform In New Democratic Legislature
Virginia’s attorney general is inviting state lawmakers to a “Cannabis Summit” next month as talk about advancing marijuana decriminalization and other reforms during the 2020 legislative session picks up.
Officials from other states that have legalized or decriminalized cannabis will speak at the event, as will academics who study the issue.
“This upcoming General Assembly Session policymakers will be considering legislation related to cannabis use in the Commonwealth,” an invitation states. “This summit is designed to better inform those discussions and offer perspectives from states that have implemented similar changes at the state level.”
“The summit will consist of 4 panels of experts from around the country to speak on the following topics related to cannabis policy: decriminalization of marijuana, social equity, regulating CBD & Hemp products, pathways towards legalization through legislative efforts and other topics that will better inform the upcoming legislative work,” reads the invitation sent out by the attorney general’s office, which was first reported by The Virginia Mercury.
Attorney General Mark Herring (D) said last month that the legislature will first move to pass a cannabis decriminalization bill—something that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had campaigned on and talked about in his State of the State address.
Lawmakers will then “get to work on a larger study about how and when we could move toward legal and regulated adult use,” Herring said.
It's time for Virginia to decriminalize, address past convictions, and move toward legal, regulated adult use.https://t.co/aqWxQCVPIg
— Mark Herring (@MarkHerringVA) November 20, 2019
“Criminalizing marijuana possession is not working. It is needlessly creating criminals, saddling people with convictions and costing taxpayers millions each year,” the attorney general wrote in an op-ed for the Virginian-Pilot this week. “The social and human costs are tremendous, and the weight of the system falls disproportionately on African Americans and people of color. There are smarter, better ways we can handle cannabis and that begins with decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts, addressing past convictions and moving towards legal, regulated adult use.”
The chances of getting cannabis reform policies through the General Assembly significantly increased after this month’s election, which saw Democrats reclaim control of both chambers for the first time in decades.
Accordingly, a lawmaker prefiled a cannabis decriminalization bill this week that would make possession of up to one ounce of marijuana punishable by a maximum $50 civil penalty.
The announcement of the Cannabis Summit, which will take place in Richmond on December 11, is another signal that political support for reforming Virginia’s marijuana laws is strong. And while Northam has not endorsed adult-use legalization, the inclusion of that issue in panel discussions indicates that decriminalization is just the beginning of the conversation. Advocates are also pushing the state to expand its limited medical cannabis program.
“The attorney general’s public support for advancing evidence-based cannabis policy, coupled with the recent formation of the Virginia Cannabis Caucus, set the stage for a robust and unprecedented exploration of real-world experiences with decriminalization, legalization and regulation in other states,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told The Virginia Mercury.
NORML honored Herring with its “Vanguard Award” as part of its national conference in September.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.