The governor of Vermont announced on Wednesday that he will allow a bill to legalize marijuana sales in the state to take effect without his signature. He also signed separate legislation to automate expungements for prior cannabis convictions.
While Vermont legalized personal possession of up to one ounce and cultivation of two plants for adults in 2018, retails sales have remained prohibited. But now with Gov. Phil Scott’s (R) decision not to veto the new cannabis commercialization bill, a tax-and-regulate system will finally be implemented.
Differing versions of the marijuana sales proposal passed each chamber before being reconciled in a bicameral conference committee last month. The legislature then approved the finalized proposal and sent it to Scott’s desk. The governor had been noncommittal about his plans for the legislation—even up until the day before the signature deadline—and had hinted that he was even considering vetoing the bill. But he ultimately gave legal cannabis supporters a win by deciding not to block the reform.
In the conference committee, legislators worked fastidiously to ensure that Scott’s stated concerns about the policy change were largely addressed. Those issues primarily related to impaired driving, taxes and local control.
But after the legislature advanced a finalized form, Scott threw advocates for a loop, stating that while he appreciated the legislative process that the bill went through, certain racial justice groups had raised concerns with his office about the extent to which the proposal addressed social equity in the cannabis industry for communities historically targeted by the war on drugs. There was some suspicion that the governor was using that pushback as an excuse to veto S. 54.
On Tuesday, the day before his deadline to act on the bill, the governor said lawmakers “did move forward in a lot of areas that I had concerns about, but it still isn’t exactly what I’d like to see and there are some shortcomings.”
In the end, however, he stood out of the way and took no proactive action.
“However, there is still more work to be done to ensure the health and safety of our kids and the safety of our roadways—we should heed the public health and safety lessons of tobacco and alcohol,” Scott wrote in a letter to lawmakers announcing his decision. “Further, I believe we are at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history which requires us to address systemic racism in our governmental institutions. We must take additional steps to ensure equity is a foundational principle in a new market.”
“The concerns with this bill of the communities historically most negatively affected by cannabis enforcement were not meaningfully incorporated into this bill,” he said.
The governor raised several areas where he feels lawmakers can tweak the legislation in the 2021 session.
The new law will give existing medical cannabis businesses an “an unfair head start on market access” over would-be new entrants to the legal industry, he said, arguing that lawmakers “should consider include creating a social equity applicant category for cannabis establishment licenses” as well as a 50 percent licensing fee waiver for those applicants and additional technical and financial assistance.
“And in the event the Legislature maintains the current integrated licensing structure, to make it more equitable revenues from those licensees could be directed to benefit social equity applicants and the communities historically most negatively impacted by cannabis enforcement,” Scott wrote.
He also expressed concern about cannabis vaping products, marketing that could appeal to youth, roadside impaired driving enforcement training for police and the timeline for appointing a new regulatory board as well as the process by which its members could be removed.
Finally, Scott said that the 30 percent of cannabis excise taxes that are set aside for substance misuse prevention programs should be allocated by the Commissioner of Health. “As passed, this funding could be raided by the Legislature and used for other unrelated purposes,” he wrote.
It’s possible that there was some political calculus involved in the decision to let the bill go into law despite his concerns, as his reelection challenger, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D), is a vocal advocate for legalization and has raised the issue in recent appearances.
Zuckerman stressed in a debate last week that while he agrees with the sentiment that more needs to be done to ensure racial justice, an imperfect bill can be improved upon, and the legislature has plenty of time to finesse the details before legal cannabis sales launch.
He also noted that separate legislation providing for automatic expungements of prior cannabis convictions, which Scott signed on Wednesday, would complement the restorative justice provisions of the tax-and-regulate bill.
A coalition of Vermont civil rights and criminal justice reform groups including the state’s ACLU chapter released a statement on Sunday that says while they shared concerns about the limitations of the social equity components of the marijuana commerce bill, they felt it could be built upon and wanted the governor to sign it, in addition to the expungements legislation.
“This has been a top priority for the majority in the Legislature for four years, but their work is not complete,” Scott said on Wednesday. “They must ensure equity in this new policy and prevent their priority from becoming a public health problem for current and future generations.”
Legalization advocates celebrated the fact that another state system of regulated cannabis sales is set to come online.
“It’s a great relief to learn that Vermont will finally move forward with plans to replace prohibition with sensible regulation,” Matt Simon, New England Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Legislators bent over backwards to address Gov. Scott’s concerns throughout this process, and it’s now clear that these difficult compromises weren’t made in vain.”
“Much work remains to create a responsible and equitable cannabis industry in Vermont, but now that S. 54 has passed the state is definitely on the right track,” he said.
State Attorney General T.J. Donovan (D) said in a Twitter post that the new bill “brings good governance & common sense to VT’s cannabis law. It will provide revenue to fund protections for consumers, education programs & safety measures.”
Over the past year I have advocated for a system to tax & regulate the sale & consumption of cannabis. S.54 brings good governance & common sense to VT’s cannabis law. It will provide revenue to fund protections for consumers, education programs & safety measures. #vtpoli
— Vermont AG Donovan (@VTAttorneyGen) October 7, 2020
Under the tax-and-regulate bill, a new Cannabis Control Commission will be responsible for issuing licenses for retailers, growers, manufacturers, wholesalers and labs. The body will also take over regulation of the state’s existing medical cannabis industry from the Department of Public Safety.
A 30 percent THC limit will be imposed on cannabis flower, while oils could contain up to 60 percent THC. Flavored vape cartridges will be banned.
Local jurisdictions will have to proactively opt in to allow marijuana businesses to operate in their area. Municipalities will also be able to establish their own regulations and municipal licensing requirements.
A timeline for the legislation states that it will 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 will 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.
The separate expungements bill 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.
The governor had vetoed an earlier version of a noncommercial legalization bill in 2018 before negotiating changes with lawmakers that made him comfortable with signing revised a revised form of the legislation.
Read Scott’s full letter to lawmakers below:
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
State And Local Marijuana Regulators Demand Congress Prioritize Federal Legalization Bill
A coalition of state and local marijuana regulators sent a letter to House leadership on Wednesday, demanding that they prioritize a marijuana legalization bill that’s expected to get a floor vote following the election.
The letter, which is being supported by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), says that regulators “need comprehensive support in their individual and collective efforts to more responsibly and equitably manage challenges and develop solutions associated with cannabis and cannabis policy.”
They said the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act represents a solution, and they urged legislators to vote in favor of it when it comes up for a vote.
Enacting the reform “would ensure that the federal government is a partner to state and municipal regulators both in our collective responsibility to serve our community through the reform of failed cannabis policies and in our collective responsibility to recognize and correct injustices,” they wrote, adding that criminalization has created “widespread” harms that disproportionately impact communities of color.
🚨BREAKING🚨 @DrugPolicyOrg Joins State & Municipal Cannabis Regulators in Calling on Congress to Prioritize Federal Marijuana Reform by Passing #MOREAct 📢 FULL QUOTE from @DPA_ONA Dir. @MaritzaCPerez IN THREAD 👇 https://t.co/NPXrZ6LLK6
— Matt Sutton (@MattSuttonEP) October 21, 2020
“As such, our attempts to eliminate these harms must be systemic and comprehensive and will require collective leadership at every level of government and collaboration amongst both the public and private sectors in order to achieve outcomes by centering equity in cannabis policy development, reform and implementation,” they wrote.
Nine regulators from Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Massachusetts and Illinois signed the letter.
“For those of us who manage state and municipal cannabis policies, and for those individuals who have been and continue to be impacted by cannabis policy, the need for comprehensive federal reform is clear and urgent,” the letter states. “Existing federal prohibition policies are antithetical to our collective responsibility to promote policies that are based in science, compassion and harm reduction.”
Leadership initially signaled that a floor vote on the MORE Act would happen in September, but following pushback from certain centrist Democrats who worried about the optics of advancing marijuana reform before another coronavirus relief package, it was postponed until after the election.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) subsequently made a commitment that the body would bring up the bill sometime “later this autumn.” While advocates were disappointed by the delay, they’re confident the MORE Act will clear the chamber with some bipartisan support when it’s ultimately scheduled for action.
Rep. Don Young (R-AK) said last month that he was “confident” it would pass the House.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the sole GOP cosponsor on the bill, also said that he would be voting “yes” on the MORE Act, though he expressed criticism about a provision that would impose a federal excise tax on marijuana sales to be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war, calling them “reparations.”
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) said “I intend to vote yes on the bill” in an interview with Politico.
McClintock, along with Gaetz, voted for the MORE Act when it was marked up by the Judiciary Committee last year.
“These regulators know first-hand the complications of regulating a substance that remains illegal at the federal level and the harms imposed as a result on communities of color and low-income people,” Maritza Perez, director of national affairs at DPA, said in a press release. “They also understand that creating a safe and equitable industry, which the MORE Act does, provides a historic opportunity to begin repairing the extensive damage prohibition has caused over the last 50 years.”
Prior to the vote’s postponement, DPA and more than 120 other civil rights and drug policy reform groups such as the ACLU and NAACP sent a letter to House leadership emphasizing the need to pass the MORE Act to promote social justice.
Read the latest letter from the regulators on cannabis reform below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Key New Jersey Senate Committee Cancels Marijuana Legalization Hearing On Implementing Referendum
A New Jersey Senate committee announced on Wednesday that it would be taking public testimony on Thursday about how to implement marijuana legalization if voters approve the reform referendum next month—but the panel canceled the event later in the day.
While the legislature decided to leave adult-use legalization up to voters as a ballot measure, legislators must still develop regulations to enact the system—and the temporarily scheduled hearing appeared to be a first step in that process.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was set to “receive public testimony concerning the legislative implementation of Public Question No. 1 on the General Election ballot, which, if approved, would legalize cannabis for personal, non-medical use by adults age 21 years or older,” a notice stated. “Public Question No. 1 would also create a legalized cannabis marketplace overseen by the State’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission.”
Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D), who chairs the committee and previously introduced a legalization bill that did not advance to a floor vote, said earlier this month that he’s been working in recent weeks with the governor’s office and legislative leaders to finalize a detailed enabling bill to implement legal market regulations.
He said the measure, which could be enacted as soon as the first week of November, would look similar to a bill he previously introduced, though he wants to add a retroactive provision to end cannabis-related prosecutions for pending cases.
“This is something about social justice. This is an economic opportunity for New Jersey,” the senator said at the time. “We can be the first state in the Northeast—absent Massachusetts, but in our economic area—to move forward and I want to be a leader in this.”
A staffer with the Office of Legislative Services told Marijuana Moment in an email that “the public hearing scheduled for October, 22, 2020 at 9:30 am has been canceled” and said it was “unknown” if the event will be rescheduled.
In any case, if polling is any indication, it appears that voters are poised to pass the cannabis referendum on their ballots next month.
A survey released on Tuesday found that that 65 percent of New Jersey voters are in favor of the marijuana referendum. Just 29 percent are opposed to the policy change and six percent remain undecided.
The results are statistically consistent with three prior polls from the same firm, as well as one from Fairleigh Dickinson University, which similarly found roughly two to one support for the measure. A separate survey released last week by Stockton University showed three to one support for legalizing cannabis among New Jersey voters.
For his part, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has been actively campaigning in favor of the referendum, participating in fundraisers and ads to encourage voters to approve it.
For example, the governor recorded a video that was released by NJ CAN 2020 earlier this month, outlining why he’s embraced the policy change. Murphy said that the ongoing criminalization of cannabis in New Jersey wastes taxpayer dollars, and he emphasized that prohibition is enforced in a racially disproportionate manner.
The governor similarly said in a recent interview that the marijuana reform proposal prioritizes social justice.
“I wish we could have gotten it done through a legislative process,” he said at the time, referencing lawmakers’ inability to advance a legalization bill last session. “We just couldn’t find the last few votes, so it’s on the referendum. I’m strongly supporting it—first and foremost for social justice reasons.”
Murphy also recently called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast that was circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
He said in July that legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.
The governor isn’t alone in his attempts to get out the vote for cannabis reform. Filmmaker Kevin Smith earlier this month urged his Twitter followers to “VOTE YES when you see State Public Question Number 1: Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana.”
NJ CAN 2020, one of two campaign committees working to pass the cannabis referendum, released a series of English- and Spanish-language video ads last week, after having published one prior ad. Meanwhile, campaign finance records compiled show that legal marijuana supporters are out-raising opponents by a ratio of nearly 130:1.
In June, the state Assembly passed a cannabis decriminalization bill that would make possession of up to two ounces a civil penalty without the threat of jail time, though it hasn’t advance in the Senate.
This story was updated to reflect the hearing’s cancellation.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Virginia Bill To Ban Police Searches Based On Marijuana Smell Gets Governor-Suggested Changes
The governor of Virginia suggested changes on Wednesday to bills that would stop police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana.
Thankfully for cannabis reform advocates, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) isn’t asking lawmakers to amend the marijuana odor provisions of the broader proposal to reform policies for law enforcement searches. Instead, according to a press release sent by his office, he is suggesting an unrelated change to ensure police “can initiate a traffic stop when an individual is driving at night without the use of both headlights and/or without the use of both break lights.”
The House and Senate will now consider the amendment, thought it’s not clear when they will do so. If the governor’s proposal is adopted by lawmakers without changes, the legislation will be formally enacted without needing his signature. Otherwise, it will come back to his desk for action.
Northam’s move comes one week after he signed separate legislation that will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.
Together, when enacted, the two new reforms will build upon the measure to decriminalize cannabis that the governor signed earlier this year, which makes it so possession of up to one ounce of cannabis is punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record.
Under the new search-focused legislation, if enacted, “no law-enforcement officer may lawfully stop, search, or seize any person, place, or thing solely on the basis of the odor of marijuana, and no evidence discovered or obtained as a result of such unlawful search or seizure shall be admissible in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding,” according to a summary.
“Eliminating non-essential interactions based on marijuana odor between law enforcement and otherwise law-abiding citizens is an important step forward for criminal justice reform in Virginia,”Jenn Michelle Pedini, NORML’s development director and the executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “However, it is only by legalizing the responsible use of cannabis by adults that the Commonwealth can end its failed experiment with prohibition and begin repairing the decades of damage done to its communities and citizens.”
The Virginia legislature has been especially active on cannabis reform this year. But that said, lawmakers have not been able to reach an agreement during the special session on legislation to provide expungements for prior marijuana convictions that had appeared destined for Northam’s desk after passing either chamber in differing forms.
Under the House-passed measure, eligible convictions would have been automatically expunged after a period of eight years. The Senate’s version, meanwhile, would have allowed people to petition to have their records cleared after a period of five years. The House bill covered more drug crimes, as well.
A conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers was appointed and tasked with ironing out the differences, but the negotiators couldn’t reach a deal by the time the special session’s agenda wrapped up last week.
During the state’s regular legislative session earlier this year, the governor and legislators also expanded Virginia’s limited medical cannabis program in addition to enacting the decriminalization law.
All of these incremental changes come as legislators continue to pursue a broader adult-use legalization plan in the Commonwealth that would include a system of regulated and taxed sales and production.
The decriminalization bill that passed contains a provision that calls for the establishment of a working group to study and make recommendations about adult-use marijuana legalization. That panel is expected to issue its report to the legislature at the end of November.
Meanwhile, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee is doing its own analysis on ending cannabis prohibition and will similarly report on its findings before the end of the year.
A bill to legalize marijuana possession was filed for the special session by a delegate running to replace the term-limited Northam in 2021, but it did not advance out of the committee to which it was referred.
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.