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Vermont Governor Seems Open To Legalizing Marijuana Sales

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Vermont’s governor is apparently open to legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana sales in the state—a significant shift from his earlier position.

While the legislature legalized low-level possession and home cultivation in 2018, the current law doesn’t allow for sales, and Gov. Phil Scott (R) has said in the past that he’s wary about allowing such commercial cannabis activity, citing concerns about impaired driving.

But the 2020 session could be different, as Scott is reportedly eyeing tax-and-regulate legislation and considers it a potential source of revenue to support an after-school program he’s pushing. The governor still wants to ensure any reform legislation includes provisions to prevent driving under the influence.

“If we do end up there, this might be a good use of any revenues from there,” Administration Secretary Susan Young told Vermont Public Radio in an interview released on Wednesday. “That’s not exclusively how we plan to fund it, but we’re going to have to be creative and looking like we did with clean water to find a source.”

Listen to Young’s comments in the audio clip below:

Another state official, Cynthia Seivwright, director of the state Department of Health’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs, said in a radio interview last month that legalizing marijuana sales would better protect public health than current policy does.

“Without the regulation, we don’t know what’s in it,” she said. “We can’t control the potency of it. We can’t control the access, and we definitely don’t want children and adolescents to have access to it.”

According to top lawmakers in the state, the legislature is positioned to advance a cannabis commerce bill, with most members in favor of the reform move.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) said last month that she believes “there is a solid tri-partisan majority in the House that would like to see tax and regulate pass this year.” While she has expressed reluctance about the legislation in the past, the speaker now says she won’t block her chamber from passing it.

Last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Sears (D) and House Government Operations Committee Chairwoman Sarah Copeland-Hanzas (D) said in a press conference that the time is right to act on marijuana legalization.

“We are shipping tax dollars out of state and fueling the economy in those states in this industry in another state,” Sears said. “It makes no sense whatsoever.”

“We look forward to working with our House counterparts in a conference committee to arrive at a bill that is supported by most members of the legislature, the governor and the general public,” he added.

Copeland-Hanzas said adults in Vermont “need to have safe and legal access to cannabis.”

“This is an opportunity—and a very unique opportunity—to stand up a new industry and to create jobs and to fill some of our vacant manufacturing and warehouse facilities in Vermont,” she said.

Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, agreed.

“It seems clear to me in the year 2020 there is no state in the U.S. that is more ready to regulate cannabis sales than Vermont,” he said.

Other political observers in the state seem to think that Scott is coming around to legalizing sales despite his earlier reluctance.

“The governor already seems to be counting those chickens that are going to be hatched from whatever tax-and-regulate system we have as it relates to revenue that’s going to be generated by a retail marijuana market,” Pete Hirschfeld of Vermont Public Radio said in a recent TV appearance. “If we read the tea leaves we can see that Governor Phil Scott has essentially resigned himself that this is an eventuality and is counting on using legal marijuana tax dollars to fund his priorities.”

Watch Hirschfeld’s comments, about 17:10 into the video below:

While it remains to be seen whether the governor will ultimately back a tax-and-regulate bill, such as legislation that was approved by the Senate last year—a proposal discussed again by the body’s Judiciary Committee on Wednesday—advocates are optimistic this legislative session will be a success.

The Senate-passed bill, which is still alive for 2020, has already been approved by one House committee. At the press conference last week, Sears expressed some frustration about how long it is taking for House committees and leadership to deal with legislation, saying he wants to get finalized legislation through a bicameral conference committee and to the governor’s desk by early March.

Scott could feel additional pressure to support a commercial marijuana model given that he’s facing a reelection challenge this year from Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (Vermont Progressive Party), who is strongly in favor of taxing and regulating the state’s cannabis market.

“I think every year we go by not doing it, we are perpetuating the underground, unregulated, unjust system that we have today while other states are moving forward,” Zuckerman said in 2018.

Over in neighboring New Hampshire, lawmakers have decided to take a lesson from Vermont and pursue non-commercial cannabis legalization this session—a move that was described to Marijuana Moment as an incremental, albeit important, step toward eventual commercialization.

Montana Activists Submit Measure To Legalize Marijuana In 2020

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Vermont Governor Happy With Process On Marijuana Sales Legalization Bill Expected On His Desk Next Week

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The governor of Vermont said on Friday that he is impressed with how lawmakers approached negotiations over a marijuana sales legalization bill that will likely be sent to his desk next week, though he stopped short of committing to sign it.

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. Both chambers of the legislature previously approved the new commercialization bill, S. 54, and a bicameral conference committee worked to hash out differences in recent weeks. And shortly after they finalized a compromise version, it was sent to the House floor, where it was approved on Thursday.

The Senate is expected to take up the final measure next week. If approved there, the bill will head to the desk of Gov. Phil Scott (R).

The governor was asked during a press briefing whether he felt the legislation contains adequate public safety provisions that he’s requested.

“The bill hasn’t been my top priority. [It’s] obviously a priority for the legislature and legislative leadership,” he said. “And so it’s been passed [by the House]. I will give great credit to those who I don’t believe had any thoughts of me and some of my concerns, but they’ve done so. They’ve moved forward.”

He drew a contrast to a climate change bill that he indicated was not thoughtfully constructed to take his input into account and which he vetoed.

“I reflect on the Global Warming Solutions Act and the difference between the two bills, and them addressing the concerns I had with the regulation of marijuana—regulation and taxation bill—versus the Global Warming Solutions Act. It’s a stark difference,” he said.

Watch the governor discuss the marijuana tax-and-regulate bill, starting around 1:13:05 into the audio below:

Scott said he was encouraged by how the conference committee navigated the marijuana bill and reached compromises.

“They created a panel, and maybe advocated some of their position there, but it’s coming back,” he said, referring to a new cannabis regulatory body that would be created by the legislation. “Any suggestions by the marijuana panel that they put into their bill is going to come back to the legislature, and they’re going to vote on it, and they’re going to consider that. I mean, that’s the way to do things.”

“They’ve come a long ways. I’ll be considering that over the next—when we do receive the bill, we haven’t received it yet. But I’ll consider that,” Scott said. “And again, they’ve come a long ways and we’ll see what happens.”

It’s been an open question whether the governor will ultimately sign off on the tax-and-regulate bill given that he vetoed an early version of a non-commercial marijuana legalization bill. He reluctantly approved a revised version after legislators agreed to include a number of provisions he requested.

An outstanding concern for Scott in this latest bill is how to mitigate the risk of impaired driving. He wants police to be able to conduct roadside saliva tests for THC—despite the shaky science about its efficacy and civil rights concerns. In conference, the panel compromised on allowing saliva testing, but officers would have to get a warrant and the tests couldn’t be conducted at roadside.

“I’ve never been philosophically opposed to a retail market, I just have concerns about that,” the governor told WCAX in a separate new interview. If marijuana sales are legalized, Scott said it will be important to “make sure we’re doing this the right way with our eyes wide open and that we’re protecting the citizens of Vermont.”

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D), who is running against the incumbent governor, has been a strong advocate for establishing a regulated cannabis market in the state. He told the local news outlet that the “hybrid” compromise on saliva testing “doesn’t cross the line for me,” despite his general reservations about the practice.

Under the proposed cannabis sales bill, 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.

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.

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.

Outside of the cannabis sales legalization bill, the House approved separate legislation this month 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 Senate could give approval to the latest version next week, setting it up to also head to Scott’s desk.

Majority Of Republicans Support Marijuana Legalization Bill That Democrats In Congress Delayed Vote On

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Hemp Farmers Now Eligible For USDA Coronavirus Relief Program

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Friday that it is expanding its coronavirus relief program for farmers—and this time around, hemp cultivators are eligible for benefits.

In May, USDA said it would be making $19 billion available for agriculture producers to assist them amid the pandemic. But it excluded hemp and several other crops, stating that they don’t qualify because they didn’t experience a five percent or greater price decline from January to April. Industry stakeholders contested that point, arguing that there’s insufficient data to establish that given how young the newly legal market is. They said they were suffering just like other sectors.

It seems the department got that message and chose to accommodate the industry. A new round of funding through USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) includes a payment category for “flat-rate crops” that lists hemp as eligible.

“Crops that either do not meet the 5-percent price decline trigger or do not have data available to calculate a price change will have payments calculated based on eligible 2020 acres multiplied by $15 per acre,” USDA said in a notice. “These crops include alfalfa, extra long staple (ELS) cotton, oats, peanuts, rice, hemp, millet, mustard, safflower, sesame, triticale, rapeseed, and several others.”

Jonathan Miller, general counsel at the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “thrilled” to see USDA take this step, though some stakeholders are saying that the calculation the department is using to determine benefits under the program “might not be as generous as for some other crops.”

“This is a very significant development for the industry,” he said. “We just want to be sure that our farmers are treated fairly just like other farmers.”

The office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has championed the industry and helped advance the crop’s legalization, highlighted the policy change.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture also touted the news.

In April, Congress approved a COVID-19 package that made hemp businesses eligible for federal disaster relief through the Small Business Administration (SBA).

For the past two years since hemp was federally legalized through the 2018 Farm Bill, USDA has been hard at work developing regulations and reaching out to the industry to ensure that the market has the resources to thrive.

This month, for example, it reopened a 30-day public comment period on its proposed rules for the crop in order to gain additional feedback on a number of provisions that stakeholders had expressed concern about. SBA recently asked USDA to extend that comment window. The department’s rule for hemp, when finalized, is set to take effect on October 31, 2021.

In July, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to Perdue, expressing concern that hemp testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) called on USDA to delay the implementation of proposed hemp rules, citing concerns about certain restrictive policies the federal agency has put forward in the interim proposal.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) last month wrote to Perdue, similarly asking that USDA delay issuing final regulations for the crop until 2022 and allow states to continue operating under the 2014 Farm Bill hemp pilot program in the meantime.

As it stands, the earlier pilot program is set to expire on October 31. The senators aren’t alone in requesting an extension, as state agriculture departments and a major hemp industry group made a similar request to both Congress and USDA last month.

Perdue has said on several occasions that DEA influenced certain rules, adding that the narcotics agency wasn’t pleased with the overall legalization of hemp.

As all of this rulemaking continues, USDA has been systematically approving hemp plans from states and tribes. Utah is the latest state to have its proposal approved.

Majority Of Republicans Support Marijuana Legalization Bill That Democrats In Congress Delayed Vote On

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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Majority Of Republicans Support Marijuana Legalization Bill That Democrats In Congress Delayed Vote On

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A majority of U.S. voters across party lines support the passage of a comprehensive federal marijuana legalization bill that was expected to receive a House floor vote before being postponed on Thursday, according to a new poll.

The survey found that 59 percent of Americans—including 53 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats—favor the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would federally deschedule cannabis and promote social equity.

Despite that bipartisan support, certain moderate Democratic lawmakers convinced House leadership that holding a vote on the bill next week, as was initially expected, could damage them politically heading into the election. They felt that advancing the reform legislation before passing another coronavirus relief bill looked bad for them—a position that advocates say is nonsensical given the widespread popularity of the issue.

This is the second time Data for Progress and the Justice Collaborative Institute asked Americans about drug policy reform and the MORE Act specifically. Their last poll, which was conducted in May, showed that 62 percent of respondents backed the bill. Support also transcended party lines in the earlier survey, with 60 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats agreeing it should be passed.

“The decision to push back a vote on the MORE Act not only calls Democrats’ prioritization of racial and criminal justice into question, but it also shows a complete disregard for the will of the majority of the American people who are ready for reform,” the Justice Collaborative said in a press release. “Failing to pass legislation decriminalizing marijuana use could be an electoral risk come November.”

While the House won’t take up the MORE Act next week as initially anticipated, leadership has given the bill’s supporters an “ironclad commitment” that it will get a floor vote in the fall, according to Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA). That will likely take place after the election.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said that “the MORE Act remains a critical component of House Democrats’ plan for addressing systemic racism and advancing criminal justice reform, and we are committed to bringing it to the Floor for a vote before the end of the year.”

The new poll—which involved interviews with 1,212 likely voters from September 11-14—also looked at support for more broad drug policy issues. For example, 60 percent said that “we should treat drug use as a public health issue and not a criminal justice issue.”

Sixty-seven percent of voters said the federal government should respect the rights of states to set their own marijuana policies. That support was also bipartisan, with 63 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats agreeing with the sentiment.

A majority of voters said police shouldn’t be arresting people for possessing cannabis for personal use (59 percent) or selling small quantities of marijuana (55 percent).

Finally, the poll asked people whether they feel that “legalized marijuana has become too corporate and it is only benefiting wealthy investors.” Half said they did feel that way, 26 percent said they disagreed and 23 percent said they didn’t know.

Interestingly, Republicans were more likely to say the industry is being corporatized (57 percent) than Democrats (48 percent).

The survey findings underscore the evolving political reality of drug policy reform: it’s popular with most Americans and it’s increasingly bipartisan. But it also reveals the splintering between public sentiment and congressional action, as evidenced in part by the MORE Act vote postponement. That select centrist Democratic members felt the optics of passing the popular bill would derail their reelection campaigns seems to highlight the disconnect.

Congressional Research Service Highlights Four Consequences Of Federal Marijuana Prohibition

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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