A bill to legalize marijuana sales in Vermont and another to provide automatic expungements for cannabis convictions are heading to the governor’s desk following a final Senate vote on Tuesday.
The legislation, which previously passed both chambers in differing forms, was recently merged into a compromise by a bicameral conference committee and then sent back to both chambers of the legislature for consent.
The House of Representatives approved the negotiated legislation last week and the Senate followed suit with a 23-6 vote. After the language undergoes final formatting from legislative counsel, the bill will be formally transmitted to the desk of Gov. Phil Scott (R).
Vermont legalized possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivation of two plants in 2018, but there are currently no regulations in place that allow for retail sales.
“This has been a long, winding road getting to this point.” Sen. Dick Sears (D), the lead sponsor of the cannabis commercialization bill and the chairman of the body’s Judiciary Committee, said prior to the vote. “This bill is not perfect. It is the result of compromise between the Senate, the House and even the governor’s office. I don’t know if he will sign it, but I would be surprised if he didn’t.”
While Scott hasn’t said whether he will put his signature on S. 54, he noted last week that he’s been impressed with how the legislative process unfolded for the measure and would take that into account.
“They’ve come a long ways and we’ll see what happens,” he said.
That said, the governor vetoed an early version of the non-commercial marijuana legalization bill before reluctantly signing a revised bill that included a number of provisions he requested from the legislature.
On Tuesday, Scott was asked at a press conference about the Senate vote and whether he supports the final sales legislation.
“I don’t know when we’ll get the bill, but we’ll take a look,” he said. “We’ll reflect on all the areas of disagreement and then I’ll make the decision from there.”
Outside of the cannabis sales legalization bill, the Senate also approved separate legislation on Tuesday in a voice vote that would provide for automatic expungements of marijuana convictions and allow people to possess and grow more cannabis without the threat of jail time than is currently allowed. The House passed that bill earlier this month, meaning it now heads to Scott’s desk as well.
Under the new proposed cannabis sales bill on its way to Scott’s desk, marijuana would be subject to a 14 percent excise tax, in addition to the state’s six percent sales tax.
S. 54 also contains some social equity provisions such as prioritizing marijuana business licenses for minorities, women and people disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. An independent regulatory commission would additionally be tasked with promoting small business participation in the market.
A new Cannabis Control Commission would be responsible for issuing licenses for retailers, growers, manufacturers, wholesalers and labs. The body would also take over regulation of the state’s existing medical cannabis industry from the Department of Public Safety .
A 30 percent THC limit would be imposed on cannabis flower, while oils could contain up to 60 percent THC. Flavored vape cartridges would be banned.
Local jurisdictions would have to proactively opt in to allow marijuana businesses to operate in their area. Municipalities would also be able to establish their own regulations and municipal licensing requirements.
The three House and three Senate members charged with negotiating the final bill on the conference committee had at times contentious meetings over the past month at which they hashed out issues such as tax rates, local control, advertising, saliva testing of drivers and even an unrelated seat belt enforcement provision the House unsuccessfully pushed to insert. Both chambers made concessions to the other in order to arrive at the final deal.
“This final compromise is not perfect, but it represents a huge step forward for Vermont,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said. “If Gov. Phil Scott signs S. 54 into law, the state will finally begin regulating cannabis in a sensible fashion for both medical and adult use. State legislators bent over backwards to address the governor’s concerns in this legislation, and now it’s time for him to sign it into law.”
A timeline for the legislation states that it would formally take effect on October 1, 2020—but regulators would then have to make a series of determinations about rules and licensing before retail sales would launch. Dispensary licenses would have to be issued on or before October 1, 2022.
A fiscal analysis on the final bill projects that Vermont will generate between $13.3 million and $24.2 million in annual cannabis tax revenue by Fiscal Year 2025. Licensing fees will lead to additional funds for the state, but the regulatory board created by the legislation will set those levels at a later date. For now, the Joint Fiscal Office estimates the fees could lead to another $650,000 in revenue every year. Municipalities hosting marijuana businesses will also be able to levy additional local fees.
Previously, Scott expressed interest in using new cannabis tax revenues to fund an after-school program he’s pursuing.
At his press conference on Tuesday, the governor was asked whether his decision to sign or veto the bill would be informed by a new Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS poll that found the state’s voters support legalizing, regulating and taxing cannabis sales by a margin of 68 percent to 24 percent.
“I’ve had concerns about going into a regulated market,” Scott responded, adding that he would make his decision based on the provisions of the bill itself. “They’ve really tried to meet my concerns, and I appreciate that from the legislature.”
The expungements bill that is also being transmitted to his desk would make it so those with convictions for marijuana possession of up to two ounces, four mature plants and eight immature plants prior to January 2021 would have their records automatically cleared. Those who receive expungements would be notified by mail.
“Today’s votes in the Senate are welcome steps for the vast majority of Vermonters across the entire political spectrum who agree that a regulated cannabis market is the right policy for Vermont, and that people who’ve previously been convicted of cannabis possession deserve to have their records automatically expunged,” Dave Silberman, a pro bono drug policy reform advocate, told Marijuna Moment. “I’m looking forward to continuing to work with racial justice advocates and other allies to ensure that the social equity provisions of S.54 are realized in implementation.”
This story has been updated to include information about the expungements vote.