The Vermont House of Representatives approved a bill on Wednesday to legalize the sale of marijuana in the state.
Following weeks of committee action advancing the legislation, the full chamber cleared the bill in a 90-54 vote.
Vermont lawmakers approved legislation to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation of cannabis for personal use in 2018, but the system lacks a retail component. The current proposal would resolve that by implementing a tax-and-regulate model similar to those in most other legal states.
The Senate already approved the bill with a veto-proof margin during the first half of the legislative biennium in 2019. This year, it was amended and approved by the House Government Operations, Ways & Means and Appropriations Committees.
“Since 2004, we have taken a step-by-step approach to reform,” Rep. John Gannon (D) said in his opening remarks, adding that the legislation “benefits from the research conducted by the governor’s commission on marijuana.”
“The key features of it though are as follows: consumer protection,” he said. “It replaces an illicit market with a strictly regulated market, provides safe access to predictable and tested products, no access to cannabis establishments are allowed for anyone under the age of 21.”
An additional House floor vote—expected on Thursday—will be needed to finalize the bill’s passage through the chamber, though that is largely seen as a formality following Wednesday’s approval. After that point, House and Senate leaders will likely appoint members to a bicameral conference committee to reconcile differences between the two bodies’ versions of the legislation.
“Vermonters are one step closer to reaping the benefits associated with cannabis regulation,” Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Marijuana Moment. “The House’s passage of S. 54 is an important step forward, and an overwhelming majority of Vermonters want to see it become law.”
Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate, said that with “today’s historic vote, the Vermont House has affirmed what most Vermonters have long known: the War on Drugs approach to cannabis has failed.”
“Regulating the commercial production and sale of cannabis is better for consumers, for public safety, and for our rural economy,” he told Marijuana Moment. “Today, common sense prevailed.”
In general, the bill would establish a commercial cannabis market in the state, create various categories of business licenses, establish a government agency to oversee the new industry and set tax rates on legal sales. It would set limits on product potency, capping THC in cannabis flower at 30 percent THC and limiting concentrates to 60 percent THC. The legislation also includes provisions to changes references in current state law from “marijuana” to “cannabis.”
Throughout the process, the bill has been subject to amendments, including on the floor.
Changes approved by the Government Operations Committee include adjusting the timeline for implementation, increasing deference to the state’s Department of Health for rulemaking, banning flavored vape cartridges and clarifying zoning rules.
The Ways & Means Committee proposed amendment changing the tax structure that was approved by the chamber. The revision calls for a 14 percent excise tax on cannabis sales, in addition to the state’s six percent sales tax. There would not be a local tax.
Another amendment from the Appropriations Committee requires tax revenue deposited into an education fund to be designated for a grant for an after-school program. It was strongly approved in a voice vote on the floor.
That policy is backed by legislative leaders and it’s also meant to appeal to Gov. Phil Scott (R), who after opposing commercial legalization has signaled that he may be supportive if revenue can fund his after-school proposal.
MPP’s Simon said this “bill presents Gov. Phil Scott with a great opportunity to continue his evolution on cannabis policy, and he should seize it.”
The committee also amended the bill to reduce the size of the Cannabis Control Board, which would be responsible for regulating the marijuana market. The bill was also amended to stipulate that 30 percent of revenue should go toward a substance misuse treatment program.
The full body signed off on all of those committee-recommended changes, and three additional amendments were proposed by members ahead of the floor vote to approve the overall bill.
After the legislation left Ways & Means, there were some concerns that not enough revenue would go toward individual municipalities. A amendment was approved by the House providing for local licensing fees to address that.
A measure to increase the size of grow facilities eligible for craft cultivation licenses from 500 to 1,000 sq. ft. was also approved by the chamber. It would also limit the maximum THC content per edible to 50 mg.
Finally, the House rejected a proposal to remove language about where tax revenue should go and allocate it to the education fund in general, rather than specify how it should be spent.
Several members have indicated they may file additional amendments to the bill prior to its final approval on Thursday. In any case, once the House gives final passage to the legislation, there are a number of areas where that chamber and the Senate will have to reconcile differences between their respective versions.
For example, the chambers have proposed differing approaches to impaired driving and the use of roadside drug testing devices. That’s an important component, as Scott has expressed serious concerns about impaired driving, and so it will likely factor into his decision to sign or reject the bill.
The tax rate is another issue, with the Senate’s version calling for a lower tax rate than the House’s.
Residents in the state are strongly in favor of the reform move, according to a poll released earlier this month by the Marijuana Policy Project. It showed that about three-in-four Vermonters support allowing adults to purchase marijuana “from regulated, taxpaying small businesses.”
In neighboring New Hampshire, the House approved a bill last week that would create a policy similar to what Vermont currently has, allowing adults to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal use without a retail component.
Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.