As Vermont’s legislature resumes following last week’s recess, key committees and lawmakers are putting renewed focus on legislation to tax and regulate marijuana sales for adults.
The state Senate gave veto-proof approval to S. 54 earlier this month. Now the proposal goes to the House for consideration, but the larger legislative body isn’t going to rush into a floor vote right away; it still has other bills to evaluate before it can take up legislation “crossing over” from the Senate.
“The House has a tendency to go through things with a fine-tooth comb,” Rep. Sam Young (D) of Glover told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “It’s just the nature of the House. We’ve never taken testimony on tax and regulate either.”
“The Senate’s done it several times, but not in the House,” he said. “I believe the support is there, we’ve just got to do the work and fine-tune some stuff.”
The Senate-passed legislation would impose a 16 percent excise tax on sales along with a two percent local option tax for towns that levee the fee. The bill provides for the creation of a three-person Cannabis Control Board that would issue licenses and regulate the marijuana economy. Officials have projected a range of $3.8 million to $7.4 million in revenue in the first fiscal year, with the expected haul rising to as much as $16.6 million by 2024.
The bill has not yet been assigned to a committee by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D), though Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas (D) of Bradford said it is likely to come before the House Committee on Government Operations, which she chairs.
“It could reside in my committee the entire time and I could ask for input from the Judiciary, Agriculture, General and probably the Human Services committees as well,” she said.
Copeland-Hanzas said she’ll also likely end up needing additional panels to consult on the bill.
Under the legislation as it stands, licenses for cultivators and testing labs would be issued between September and October of 2020. Retailers would receive licenses in spring 2021.
Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana by legislative action—as opposed to via a voter initiative—in 2018, but it left out any provision to allow its sale. The Senate has passed legislation to legalize and regulate cannabis sales multiple times in the past, but the larger House, where S. 54 sits now, has failed to adopt similar proposals.
While the current bill’s path through the House remains to be seen, proponents say newly expanded Democratic and Progressive majorities in both chambers will play to their favor.
“The fact that we have separated the question of whether or not we have marijuana legal for adult consumption from the question of whether or not we have retail sales does make a difference to a lot of people,” Copeland-Hanzas said.
Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate from Middlebury, said he was looking forward to hearing testimony in the House.
“My sense is the reason that tax and regulate votes have failed in the House in the past is because there have been no substantive committee hearings on tax and regulate,” he said. “In order to get big policy done, a lot of people just feel like the process is very important and folks who are sympathetic toward tax and regulate, who are supportive of tax and regulate, have held back because of that lack of process.”
“What’s different this year is that the speaker has publicly stated that we are going to get multiple committees involved with the process this year, and I think that’s a huge step this year,” he added. “It’s something I’ve been begging for for the past three years.”
Although she has committed to holding hearings on the issue, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) has also said she’s unconvinced the state is ready for taxed and regulated sales.
“You know, I’m honestly really torn on it,” she told Vermont Public Radio in January.
The House’s Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs is holding on to H. 196, a separate tax and regulate bill, authored and introduced by Young and cosponsored by more than a third of the House’s membership. In his legislation, existing dispensaries, which currently only serve patients on the state’s medical marijuana registry, could pay a $75,000 fee to start recreational sales to the public next year.
Those collected funds would be used to offset the costs of setting up the Cannabis Control Board. Senate leaders opted to not include a similar measure in their bill, saying it would create an unfair advantage for the current providers.
“I think it could be helpful in front-loading some of the revenue that we need,” Copeland-Hanzas said. “This is really all about consumer protection, and it’s hard to imagine where in a small state we’re going to find a bunch of budgetary dollars to do that.”
Other details the House will have to grapple with include the rate at which sales are taxed, funds for education and prevention efforts and the number of positions on the Cannabis Control Board— which had dropped from five to three positions in the final version of the Senate’s bill.
Gov. Phil Scott (R), who reluctantly signed legislation to legalize low-level marijuana possession and home cultivation last year, has said he would be unwilling to sign a bill to tax and regulate sales unless public safety initiatives, including roadside testing, are funded as well.
“To be very direct: There must be comprehensive and convincing plans completed in these areas before I will begin to consider the wisdom of implementing a commercial ‘tax and regulate’ system for an adult marijuana market,” he said last year prior to signing the previous bill.
Young said he’s aware of Scott’s demands.
“We need to work it out with the governor because we’re going to need a signature,” he said. “Without it, all the effort is for nothing.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
New Jersey Voters Will Decide On Marijuana Legalization Next Year, Senate Leaders Say
New Jersey lawmakers are giving up on plans to enact marijuana legalization through the legislature and are now seeking to put the question before voters on the 2020 ballot.
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D) announced on Monday that while they had “made further attempts to generate additional support in the Senate to get this done legislatively,” the “votes just aren’t there.” As a result, they filed a proposal that would allow residents to vote on legalization as a constitutional amendment.
“We are moving forward with a plan to seek voter approval to legalize adult use marijuana in New Jersey,” the leaders said in a press release. “We introduced legislation today to authorize a public referendum for a proposal that will lead to the creation of a system that allows adults to purchase and use marijuana for recreational purposes in a responsible way.”
— Brian Thompson (@brian4NY) November 18, 2019
“This initiative will bring cannabis out of the underground so that it can be controlled to ensure a safe product, strictly regulated to limit use to adults and have sales subjected to the sales tax,” they said.
The plan, which NJ.com first reported, is to have the legislature to approve the referendum proposal and get the ballot measure set for a vote in the general election next November. Sweeney and Scutari said they are “confident it will be approved by the Senate, the Assembly and the voters.”
“We will now move forward with a plan that helps correct social and legal injustices that have had a discriminatory impact on communities of color,” they said. “We can make real progress towards social justice at the same time that cannabis is made safe and legal.”
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said he is “disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo—which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color—will continue.”
I am disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo – which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color — will continue.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) November 18, 2019
“However, I have faith that the people of New Jersey will put us on the right side of history when they vote next November,” he said. “By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.”
By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) November 18, 2019
After months of negotiation, it became apparent that that progress wasn’t going to happen legislatively in the short-term, with Sweeney indicating as early as May that legalization would likely have to be decided through a voter referendum.
Text of the resolution calling for a referendum doesn’t offer many details about what the proposed legal cannabis market would look like; rather it generally describes a system allowing adults 21 and older to use and purchase marijuana from authorized retail facilities. The state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission would be responsible for regulating the program. And cannabis sales would be subject to the state sales tax, with no additional excise tax added.
As written, the draft ballot question is worded somewhat confusingly. Voters would be asked: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?”
“Only adults at least 21 years of age could use cannabis,” it continues. “The State commission created to oversee the State’s medical cannabis program would also oversee the new, personal use cannabis market. Retail sales of cannabis products in this new market would be subject to the State’s sales tax, and no other form of tax.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) said in a press release that his chamber “will vote on legislation to put an adult-use cannabis question before the voters.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) November 18, 2019
“We plan to pass the measure this year and next in order for New Jerseyans to have the opportunity to make the decision in November 2020 when we expect voter turnout to be high due to the presidential election,” he said.
Prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana celebrated news of the legislature abandoning plans to pursue legalization legislatively this session and said it would invest resources into a campaign to dissuade voters from supporting the proposed ballot initiative.
BREAKING: New Jersey State Senate abandons push to legalize marijuana during 'lame duck' session.
The marijuana industry outspent SAM 86-1 in this effort.
Our statement: pic.twitter.com/MPtI2fNIzx
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) November 18, 2019
While adult-use legalization hasn’t panned out as advocates hoped, Murphy did sign a bill significantly expanding the state’s medical cannabis program in July. Sweeney had pointed to that reform move as one reason legalization negotiations stalled.
It’s not clear how the ballot approach is going to impact discussions about regionally coordinating legalization plans in the Northeast, which has been ongoing since New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) met to talk about the issue over the summer.
During a joint meeting of governors from around the region last month, Murphy said that “doing things in an intelligent, coordinated, harmonious way is good for the entirety of not just our states but our residents” and emphasized the need for social justice components in a legal cannabis market.
Read the text of the New Jersey marijuana legalization referendum resolution below:
This story has been updated to include comments from the governor and assembly speaker.
Sanders Pledges Legal Marijuana ‘In Every State’ As Biden Faces ‘Gateway Drug’ Backlash
As former Vice President Joe Biden faces a backlash over his suggestion that marijuana could be a ‘gateway’ drug, rival presidential candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), as well as entrepreneur Andrew Yang, are touting their own support for cannabis reform proposals
One day after Biden said he doesn’t support national cannabis legalization because there’s “not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,” Sanders offered a competing vision, emphasizing in a speech that he wants to “make marijuana legal in every state in the country,” rather than allow prohibition to continue in certain states.
The senator also discussed other elements of a cannabis reform plan he released last month, including his pledge to “expunge the records of those arrested for possession of marijuana” and provide funding to promote participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
“It sounds unfair that when we legalize marijuana, you end up having a handful of corporations controlling that industry,” Sanders said during the Sunday event in Las Vegas. “We have built into our criminal justice program an effort to provide many billions of dollars in help to people in the African-American community, Latino community, other communities, the people who have been hit the hardest by the war on drugs, to help them profit off a legal marijuana system.”
Watch Sanders’s marijuana comments, around 33:00 into the video below:
Sanders described his three-step plan to prevent large corporations from controlling the cannabis market during an interview on Showtime’s Desus & Mero last month.
Separately, he took to Twitter on Sunday to highlight new polling showing that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
The American people are united on issue after issue. We must legalize marijuana now—and expunge all past marijuana convictions as a matter of racial and economic justice. https://t.co/NQjp7WOko3
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) November 17, 2019
Meanwhile, Harris also appeared to take a direct hit at Biden over his “gateway drug” comment, stating that the debate on that matter is already settled.
Let's be clear: marijuana isn't a gateway drug and should be legalized. Glad to see my bill with Rep. Nadler take the next step in the House this week. https://t.co/d6BcMFlpYT
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) November 18, 2019
“Let’s be clear: marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and should be legalized,” she tweeted, adding that she’s glad that a bill she and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed earlier this year to federally deschedule cannabis is scheduled for a vote in the House this week.
Harris herself has faced pushback from reform advocates and challengers who point out that the senator was involved in criminalizing cannabis consumers, and opposed legalization, during her time as a prosecutor.
Yang, for his part, presented a visual contrast to Biden on Monday, sharing photos of him smiling, surrounded by dozens of trimmed marijuana plants in an undisclosed facility.
He also wrote in a tweet that cannabis “should be legal nationwide” and linked to a campaign site page laying out his reform plan.
Marijuana should be legal nationwide. It is already legal in several states, it reflects a safer approach to pain relief than opiates, and our administration of drug laws is deeply uneven and racist. https://t.co/0Uhl17MW98
— Andrew Yang🧢 (@AndrewYang) November 18, 2019
“It is already legal in several states, it reflects a safer approach to pain relief than opiates, and our administration of drug laws is deeply uneven and racist,” Yang said.
Biden has drawn criticism from lawmakers outside of the presidential race as well, with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) calling him out on Monday.
Get with the program, @JoeBiden.
Not only do we have legislation that would solve the issue of research, the American people overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis—period.
The war on drugs has ruined countless lives. It's past time we end this senseless prohibition.
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) November 18, 2019
“Get with the program, @JoeBiden,” the congressman, who has spearheaded Capitol Hill efforts to end federal prohibition, said. “Not only do we have legislation that would solve the issue of research, the American people overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis—period.”
“The war on drugs has ruined countless lives,” he said. “It’s past time we end this senseless prohibition.”
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.
AOC Calls For Decriminalizing The Use Of All Drugs
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) voiced support for decriminalizing the use of all drugs on Sunday.
The freshman congresswoman tweeted that drug decriminalization, as well as marijuana legalization, are “matters of public health.”
Marijuana should be legalized, and drug consumption should be decriminalized.
These are matters of public health.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 18, 2019
This marks a development in Ocasio-Cortez’s drug policy platform. Previously, she called for decriminalizing the use and research of psychedelics, emphasizing the therapeutic potential of the substances.
To that end, she introduced an amendment to a spending bill in June that would remove a rider that advocates argue has inhibited research into the potential therapeutic benefits of Schedule I drugs such as psilocybin and LSD. The House rejected that measure in a floor vote, however.
There’s a growing push to decriminalize the personal possession of drugs beyond cannabis. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), both Democratic presidential candidates, are in favor of the policy. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang supports decriminalizing opioids as a means to combat the drug overdose crisis.
Ocasio-Cortez recently gave her endorsement to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). But while the senator was the first major presidential candidate to back marijuana legalization during his 2016 run, he said this year he’s “not there yet” on broader drug decriminalization. It’s not clear if the congresswoman’s role as a surrogate on his campaign will ultimately influence him to adopt the policy.
But as more candidates debate the best way forward on various drug reform proposals, with cannabis legalization being a given for almost all contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden remains several paces behind. He opposes adult-use legalization and said on Saturday that marijuana may be a gateway to other, more dangerous substances.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.