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.
Hemp Farmers Guaranteed Federal Crop Insurance Through Disaster Bill Amendment
The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that is mostly focused on providing relief aid to areas impacted by natural disasters—but it also includes a provision ensuring that hemp farmers qualify for federal crop insurance.
The hemp section was inserted into the legislation at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Though similar language already exists in the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized hemp and its derivatives, the senator took an added measure to provide clarity to farmers who want access to the insurance option ahead of the 2020 planting season.
“Beginning not later than the 2020 reinsurance year, the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation shall offer coverage under the wholefarm revenue protection insurance policy (or a successor policy or plan of insurance) for hemp (as defined in section 297A of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1639o)),” text of the provision states.
“Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985,” it continues.
The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 85 to 8. The House is expected to approve the disaster legislation by unanimous consent by the end of the week, and President Donald Trump has offered assurances that he will sign it into law.
The legalization of hemp has sparked strong interest among farmers in states from Colorado to Kentucky, but it will still be some time until the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops and implements its federal regulatory guidelines.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that while his department would not rush its rulemaking process, it still intends to implement the regulations before the 2020 planting season. After that point, USDA would be able to approve regulatory plans submitted by individual states.
McConnell, who championed the hemp legalization provision, has urged the quick and effective implementation of such regulations, and he’s suggested that he’d introduce standalone legislation to resolve any “glitches” in its rollout.
While not a standalone bill, the hemp-focused provision of the disaster legislation seems to indicate he plans to make good on that promise.
The senator has made much of his pro-hemp agenda, arguing last month that his role in reforming hemp laws is at “the top of the list” of reasons why voters should reelect him in 2020. He also cited hemp as an agricultural alternative to tobacco when he introduced a bill this week to raise the minimum age requirement to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.
Congressional Report Urges DEA Action On Marijuana Cultivation Applications
A congressional committee report attached a large-scale spending bill containing marijuana-related protections has been amended to include a call for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to finally act on long-pending applications for federal licenses to grow cannabis for research purposes.
The legislation itself, which was released by a House subcommittee last week, could still be further amended as it goes through the legislative process. But as approved by the full House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, the bill stipulates that none of the Fiscal Year 2020 funds it allocates may be used by the Justice Department to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs.
The provision has been federal law since 2014, but its inclusion in the initial subcommittee proposal as introduced is the earliest it has ever surfaced in the legislative process for the annual spending bill. While advocates hoped broader protections for adult-use cannabis states would also be included in the base legislation, that rider isn’t in the bill—at least not yet.
There was also a technical problem with the legislation that wasn’t resolved by the committee manager’s amendment, the text of which has not been posted but was obtained by Marijuana Moment. The medical cannabis provision lists the states and territories its protections apply to—but it left out the U.S. Virgin Islands, which legalized medical marijuana in January.
Similar errors have occurred in past versions of the legislation, when legal medical cannabis states North Dakota and Indiana were not included in an earlier version of the rider, and advocates hope that the language will be amended on the House floor.
But while that fix didn’t make it into the bill at the committee level, the directive to the DEA about cannabis cultivation licenses was added to the committee report attached to the bill via the manager’s amendment.
“The Committee urges the Drug Enforcement Administration to expeditiously process any pending applications for authorization to produce marijuana exclusively for us in medical research,” the revised report states.
The DEA has faced significant pressure from lawmakers, advocates and scientists to approve applications for additional marijuana manufacturers to produce research-grade cannabis. Currently there is only one federally authorized facility, and the quality of its product has long been criticized.
DEA announced a process to license additional cultivators during the final months of the Obama administration in 2016, but the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to act on more than two dozen pending applications. Current Attorney General William Barr has pledged to look into the matter, and has said he agrees that approving additional manufacturers is necessary.
Advocates hope that the new committee report language could help to finally spur movement at the department.
“The DEA is a disaster on marijuana and they need to stop obstructing research ASAP,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment.
“It’s beyond ridiculous that they won’t act on these applications. Even prohibitionists like Project SAM agree,” he added, referring to the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “And when the guys who get their drug policy from the 1920s say you’re behind the times, that’s pretty embarrassing.”
Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said that Sessions “was the only government official opposed to cannabis research, and he is no longer employed.”
“Now is the time for AG Barr to follow through on his commitment and allow researchers pathways to consumer-grade cannabis,” he said.
Another provision included in the appropriations bill would offer protections for states that have implemented industrial hemp pilot programs under the 2014 Farm Bill. The Justice Department wouldn’t be allowed to use its funds to interfere in such programs under the proposal.
Of course, the 2018 version of the agriculture legislation removed hemp and its derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act, shifting regulatory responsibility onto the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead of the Justice Department, so that provision may not be especially relevant going forward.
The bill will next head to the Rules Committee, which will decide the list of amendments—potentially including additional cannabis-related ones—that can be considered on the House floor.
Read the text of the manager’s amendment with the DEA marijuana language below:
Managers Amendment FINAL by on Scribd
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
House Committee Approves Immigration Bill With Marijuana Protections
A congressional committee voted in favor of a wide-ranging immigration bill on Wednesday, and the legislation includes marijuana-related protections for people who were brought to the U.S. as children.
Under the DREAM Act as approved, having low-level cannabis convictions, or engaging in state-legal cannabis-related activities such as working in the regulated marijuana industry, would not be counted against applications for permanent resident status for so-called Dreamers.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill in a 19-10 vote, without specific discussion about the cannabis provisions.
The section concerning eligibility for permanent status stipules that having three or more misdemeanor convictions could be grounds for ineligibility—but the bill creates an exemption for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”
The text seems to indicate that immigrants who engaged in cannabis-related activities prior to a state reforming its marijuana laws would still be protected even if that activity was not state-legal at the time.
Similar language appears under a separate section about grounds for a provisional denial of an application for adjustment of status. Applicants would be exempted from such a denial if their conviction was for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”
A previous version of the legislation, filed in March, didn’t include the specific eligibility requirements related to certain criminal activity, nor did it contain any explicit marijuana protections. It’s possible that House Democrats thought up the exemptions during a brainstorming session earlier this month about potential bill revisions aimed at building more support.
The next likely stop for the DREAM Act will be the House Rules Committee before heading to a full floor vote.
There’s been growing interest in reforming marijuana policies as they apply to immigrants and visitors to the U.S.
Earlier this month, four congressional Democrats sent a letter to the head of the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security to end the practice of rejecting naturalization applications solely because the applicant worked in a state-legal marijuana market. That came after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a memo specifying that such activity could render them morally unfit for citizenship.
And last week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced legislation aimed at resolving marijuana-related border issues, whereby visitors who admit to using cannabis or working in their country’s legal industry can be denied entrance.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.