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.
Bernie Sanders Talks Marijuana With Killer Mike, Danny Glover And Ben & Jerry’s Founder
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) led a panel during a presidential campaign stop in North Carolina on Friday where he and surrogates—rapper Killer Mike, actor Danny Glover and Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen—discussed marijuana reform.
At one point, Cohen said that he was arrested after being caught smoking cannabis while he was in school but the police only charged him for littering—a discretionary decision that he said he likely wouldn’t have been afforded if he was black. He speculated that without that privilege, the incident could have cost him loans that allowed him to build his ice cream empire.
Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, opened the conversation by asking Killer Mike to weigh in on the impact of the drug war, particularly on communities of color.
The artist said the “war on drugs, we now know from history, has been a tremendous failure” and that it “was never a war on drugs, it was a war on progressive white kids and black people.”
He discussed the racist origins of prohibition, the role cannabis criminalization has played in mass incarceration and emphasized the need to include restorative justice in a legal marijuana system.
“But we have a greater opportunity, and the greater opportunity is this: marijuana is going to be legal in our lifetime,” he said. “Beyond getting a little stoned in the morning, which I didn’t do this morning because I knew I had to come see you guys, marijuana provides through hemp paper, alternative to plastics, it provides jobs, resources, dispensaries.”
Watch the conversation about cannabis, starting at about 11:20 into the video below:
“We have an opportunity this time to take the people that are exiting jail, have expunged records and creating a pathway as wide as this aisle directly to legal marijuana and creating economic sustainability in the same communities that were robbed of that opportunity,” he said.
“As for me and my stoner friends, we’ll be buying Ben & Jerry’s and voting for Bernard Sanders.”
Glover joked that Mike’s plan is the “real green new deal that we need right here,” riffing off the name of climate change agenda backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
“What we’re talking about now is repairing the wrongs that were done on our communities, and we have a senator who’s going to be the president, who’s saying that we’re not only going to repair the wrongs of the war on drugs but we are going to bring back an era that we are organizing in our communities,” the actor said.
Cohen highlighted racial inequities in marijuana enforcement and broader societal structures, starting by noting that his parents were only able to enter the middle class with the help of a government program providing low-interest mortgages that black people were not entitled to. That program allowed him to go to a good school, he said, where he got busted for cannabis at one point.
“In the midst of getting my higher education, one summer I was smoking some pot with some friends on a beach and the cops caught us,” he said. “We were handcuffed and they took us to the station and they ended up giving us a ticket for littering a lighted cigarette butt on the ground.”
“But I am well aware that if I was black, I would’ve ended up with a criminal record that would have prevented me from getting the loans that we needed to start Ben & Jerry’s,” he said. “It’s really clear to me that if I was black, there wouldn’t have been a Ben & Jerry’s. I’m conscious of that, I think about that, and that’s one of the big reasons I’m supporting Bernie because he’s going to put an end to that system.”
The criminalization of marijuana has been a disaster for communities of color.
We will legalize marijuana, expunge past convictions and invest revenue from legal marijuana back into those communities. pic.twitter.com/x7xrzw1Eu4
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 21, 2019
Sanders closed the panel discussion by asking audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone arrested for marijuana, or were themselves arrested. He did a similar exercise at a campaign rally in South Carolina earlier this week.
After hands shot up, the senator said “this is what the war on drugs has done in this country.”
“It has criminalized so many people in this room. This is amazing,” he said. “The war on drugs has been incredibly destructive for millions and millions of people in this country and we’re going to end that war on drugs and we’re going to make marijuana legal.”
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.
Former Federal Prosecutor’s Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances In South Dakota
A measure to legalize marijuana in South Dakota—introduced by a former federal prosecutor and backed by a leading national cannabis advocacy group—was recently cleared for signature gathering.
Brendan Johnson, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota and whose father represented the state in the U.S. Senate until 2015, filed the initiative in June. It received an official explanatory statement from the attorney general last month and its backers were given the green light to start collecting signatures last week.
“We are excited to move forward with these ballot initiative campaigns,” Johnson told Marijuana Moment. “South Dakota voters are ready to approve both medical marijuana and legalization at the ballot box next year.”
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is supporting the proposed constitutional amendment, as well as a separate statutory initiative to legalize medical cannabis in the state that was approved for signature collection last month.
The former federal prosecutor’s measure, which is being steered by the committee South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, would allow adults 21 and older to possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Individuals would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants. The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be tasked with issuing licenses for manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers.
Sales would be taxed at 15 percent under the initiative, and revenue would be used to fund the program’s implementation, with additional monies going toward public education and the state general fund.
Beside legalizing marijuana, the amendment would also instruct the legislature to enact legislation to legalize hemp and medical cannabis. If the separate statutory medical marijuana legalization initiative, being coordinated by the group New Approach South Dakota, qualifies and passes as well, that latter requirement wouldn’t be necessary.
“The Marijuana Policy Project strongly supports the South Dakota campaign,” MPP Deputy Director Matthew Schweich, who led the organization’s efforts in support of previous legalization campaigns in Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan, told Marijuana Moment. “Across the country, and even in conservative states, voters are demanding marijuana policy reform. Our goal is simple: to effectuate the will of the people when elected officials choose to ignore it.”
Petitioners for the proposed constitutional amendment must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters to qualify for the 2020 ballot. For statutory initiatives, 16,961 signatures are required. MPP’s involvement will likely bolster the campaign’s prospects of meeting that goal.
It’s already clear that marijuana reform measures are going to face resistance from certain quarters, with Gov. Kristi Noem (R) vetoing a hemp legalization bill in March and the state’s Republican party urging residents not to sign ballot petitions.
“Our campaign, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, will be working from now until Election Day 2020 to earn the support of South Dakotans from every corner of the state,” Johnson said.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches
With a vote on marijuana banking issues imminent in the House, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) emphasized on Friday that he will not support cannabis legislation that doesn’t include restorative justice components.
In a tweet that linked to an earlier Marijuana Moment article on his cannabis stance, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wrote that “any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.”
As I said earlier this year, any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.https://t.co/Y1dOwgHbm2
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) September 20, 2019
The statement comes at a critical moment in the marijuana reform movement. House leadership announced on Friday that the first full floor vote on a standalone piece of cannabis reform legislation—a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators—will be held next week. But that development has also created controversy, with several advocacy groups arguing that a vote should be postponed until more wide-ranging reform legislation is passed.
Although Booker didn’t directly reference the banking bill his his tweet, its timing seemed to suggest that he sides with those groups—which include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance—and that he wouldn’t support the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act as written.
Booker’s Senate press secretary confirmed to Marijuana Moment in an email that his boss’s Twitter post was sent directly in reaction to the House banking news.
While some have made the case that the bill would help promote social equity by improving access to banking services for minority business owners, for example, others view the legislation as primarily benefiting large cannabis firms.
Throughout his campaign, the senator has emphasized the need for inclusive and comprehensive marijuana reform. He determined that a bill to protect state cannabis programs from federal intervention that he formerly cosponsored didn’t meet that standard and did not attach his name to the latest version.
“At this point it’s too obvious and urgent and unfair that we’re moving something on marijuana on the federal level and it doesn’t do something on restorative justice,” he told VICE in April. “I want that bill to have some acknowledgement of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities.”
“I get very angry when people talk about legalizing marijuana and then give no light to how marijuana law enforcement was done in ways that fed upon poor communities—black and brown communities. This is a war on drugs that has not been a war on drugs—it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately poor people and disproportionately black and brown people.”
Booker also said that he wants to couple conversations about legalization with talk of expunging prior cannabis convictions “in the same breath.”
The senator’s potential future opposition to a House-passed cannabis banking bill could prove problematic as its supporters work to shepherd the legislation through a chamber where it already faces an uphill path under anti-marijuana Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and skepticism from other GOP lawmakers.
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.