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Vermont Lawmakers Finally Reach Deal On Marijuana Sales Legalization Bill

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A Vermont panel of House and Senate negotiators have reached a final compromise deal on a bill to tax and regulate marijuana sales in the state.

While Vermont legalized possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivation of two plants in 2018, there are currently no regulations in place that allow for retail sales. That would change under S. 54, which previously cleared both chambers of the legislature before being sent to the bicameral conference committee to reconcile differences.

The panel has held a series of meetings on the legislation in recent weeks, with members negotiating key provisions such as tax rates, local control, saliva testing and advertising. Each side offered a bevy proposals and counterproposals in the final housrs of negotiations before reaching an agreement late Tuesday. Sen. Jeannette White (D), a conferee, confirmed to Marijuana Moment that the conference report was signed by all six members of the panel.

Here are the main compromises on remaining issues reached by the bicameral group of lawmakers:

-The excise tax rate on marijuana will be set at 14 percent, in addition to the state’s six percent sales tax. The Senate agreed to give up a proposal to have two percent of that 14 percent go to local jurisdictions; instead, those municipalities would receive funds through license and distributor fees.

-In order to conduct a saliva test for suspected cannabis-impaired driving, police would need to obtain a search warrant and the sample couldn’t be taken at roadside. The Senate opposed saliva testing, despite Gov. Phil Scott’s (R) insistence on it, but conceded on the condition that the House drop unrelated language it wanted about seatbelt enforcement.

-The House agreed to drop a section that would have outright prohibited cannabis businesses from advertising. Regulators will work with the state attorney general and health department to come up with rules for advertising.

“There are issues that I disagree with, others I agree with—such is the nature of compromise. The one issue I continue to disagree with is how we are sending revenue to the towns,” White told Marijuana Moment. “The Senate proposal was that the towns that host any type of establishment should share in the revenue. The House insisted on fees which will be added to the establishments thus increasing the ultimate cost to the customers.”

“But I signed on to the report because it finally starts a regulated and taxed system in Vermont—years after working on it,” she said. “So if it gets passed we will have something to tweak over the next couple years, if it doesn’t pass we have nothing to tweak. So I will continue to work on this next session.”

Sen. Dick Sears (D), the chairman of his chamber’s Judiciary Committee and the lead sponsor of S.54, told The Bennington Banner, which first reported on Tuesday’s agreement, that the bill is “not perfect,” but there’s been “a lot of compromise, a lot of give and take on both sides to get to a place where we could reach agreement.”

The bill will now head back to the House and Senate floors for final votes on the compromise language before being sent to the governor’s desk. Scott hasn’t indicated whether he’s supportive of the newly revised legislation, but a top legislator said earlier this year that he’s been “at the table” in earlier negotiations and has expressed interest in using some tax revenue to fund an after-school program he’s pursuing. That said, he only reluctantly signed the legalization of possession and homegrow into law after vetoing an earlier version, and it’s not clear if the road safety provisions in the final commercialization bill will be enough to satisfy his concerns.

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—a concession made by the Senate, which instead wanted to require towns that didn’t want cannabis commerce to opt out. Municipalities would also be able to establish their own regulations and municipal licensing requirements.

A 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.

“This was a difficult compromise for legislators, who faced pressure from many different directions,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “We applaud them for sticking with the task and completing it. The need for a regulated cannabis market in Vermont has never been more urgent, and this bill has come too far to fail—it would be a terrible shame if Vermont doesn’t finish the job and pass S. 54 into law.”

The bill is on the House notice calendar for Wednesday, meaning a floor vote could be taken as soon as Thursday. After that, the Senate will take up its final consideration, likely sending the proposal to Scott’s desk sometime next week.

Outside of the cannabis sales legalization bill, the House last week gave preliminary approval to separate legislation 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. It’s now on the Senate notice calendar, which allows for a vote as early as Thursday.

Read the text of the marijuana tax-and-regulate bill as finalized by the conference below: 

S.54 Conference Report by Marijuana Moment

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

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Marijuana Bill Up For House Vote Could ‘Reverse’ Federal-State Policy Gap, Congressional Research Service Says

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A bill to federally legalize marijuana that is scheduled for a House vote next week could “reverse” the current cannabis policy gap that exists between states and the federal government, a new Congressional Research Service (CRS) report says.

In an analysis of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act that was published on Wednesday, CRS described the various complications resulting from ongoing federal prohibition as more states opt to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. The research agency said the legislation could inadvertently create a new schism where federal policy would be more progressive than those of certain states.

That’s because the bill does not require states to stop criminalizing cannabis, and so jurisdictions with prohibition still on the books could continue to punish people over marijuana even as such activity is legalized at the federal level.

“If the MORE Act became law, it could create a new divide between federal and state law—essentially the reverse of the current marijuana policy gap, since federal marijuana law would become less strict than some state laws,” CRS wrote. “The MORE Act could also highlight the inconsistency between marijuana laws in different U.S. jurisdictions by repealing the uniform federal prohibition and leaving in place a patchwork of varying state laws.”

The MORE Act, whose lead sponsor is Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions and impose a federal five percent tax on sales, revenue from which would be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war.

The legislation would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.

“Congress may be content to allow states to experiment with varying approaches to marijuana regulation,” CRS said. “In the alternative, Congress might prefer a more uniform approach, whether that approach is to criminalize or decriminalize marijuana, or something in between. However, while Congress can pass legislation creating a uniform federal policy, there are limits to its ability to affect state law.”

The agency said that while lawmakers lack the “constitutional authority to alter state criminal law,” they could “preempt state law through Commerce Clause legislation” or “encourage states to change their laws through the use of the spending power.”

To that end, while the MORE Act does not create a federal regulatory structure for cannabis or force states to change their own laws, it does include provisions that incentivize the adoption certain local reform policies. For example, it offers federal funding for “eligible states” that take steps to expunge prior cannabis convictions and stop penalizing people on parole for marijuana-related offenses.

“Congress could also invoke its spending power to encourage states to regulate marijuana more stringently, and has previously used the spending power to shape drug policy in targeted ways,” CRS said.

These and other considerations will likely be the subject of significant debate when the House takes up the MORE Act next week.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced on Friday that the bill will be taken on the floor as soon as Wednesday.

He had previously said this summer that the chamber would vote on the legislation in September, but that plan was postponed following pushback from certain centrist Democrats who worried about the optics of advancing cannabis reform before passing another coronavirus relief package.

The bill cleared Nadler’s more than a year ago and has been awaiting floor action since.

Even if the far-reaching reform does pass in the Democratic-controlled chamber, as it’s expected to with some bipartisan support, it remains unlikely that the Senate will follow suit, at least during this Congress. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a champion of the hemp industry but staunchly opposes further marijuana reform.

Even so, a symbolic vote for legalization could send a strong signal to the incoming Biden administration. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the lead Senate sponsor of the MORE Act, but she’s indicated she will not necessarily proactively push the former vice president to evolve further on cannabis reform.

Given Biden’s former approach to championing punitive anti-drug legislation as a senator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor the policy change, there remains some skepticism about his willingness to make good on his campaign promises to achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.

A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released this month left out mention of those cannabis pledges.

That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”

For what it’s worth, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.

CRS, in its new report, also discussed broader drug policy reform efforts taking place at the state level and locally, such as Oregon’s recent vote to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs. The agency noted moves to decriminalize psychedelics specifically in Washington, D.C., too.

These “current trends suggest that there may be a broader movement toward decriminalizing controlled substances,” CRS said. “Comprehensively addressing such changes is outside the scope of the MORE Act, but Congress may wish to monitor developments in this area when considering future legislation.”

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Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill Will Get A Congressional Vote Next Week, Leader Announces

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A bill to federally legalize marijuana will receive a full floor vote in the U.S. House of Representatives next week, a top Democratic leader in the chamber announced on Friday.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said the chamber will take up the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act some time between Wednesday and Friday. The floor schedule announcement comes weeks after the leader first confirmed that the House would advance the proposal before the year’s end.

Early in the week, the bill is first expected to go before the House Rules Committee, which prepares legislation for floor action and decides which amendments can be made in order for consideration by the full body.

Hoyer previously said that the chamber would vote on the legislation in September, but that plan was postponed following pushback from certain centrist Democrats who worried about the optics of advancing cannabis reform before passing another coronavirus relief package. Several moderates ended up losing their reelection races this month on the same dat that voters in several red states approved legalization measures, however, raising questions about their strategic thinking on the politics of marijuana.

“I’ve been working on this issue longer than any politician in America and can confidently say that the MORE Act is the most comprehensive federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said in a press release. “Our vote to pass it next week will come after people in five very different states reaffirmed the strong bipartisan support to reform the failed cannabis prohibition. National support for federal cannabis legalization is at an all-time high and almost 99 percent of Americans will soon live in states with some form of legal cannabis.”

“Congress must capitalize on this momentum and do our part to end the failed policy of prohibition that has resulted in a long and shameful period of selective enforcement against communities of color,” he said.

The House approving the bill during the presidential transition could also raise the pressure on President-elect Joe Biden to embrace legalization—a policy he’s declined to adopt despite supermajority support among Democratic voters.

As currently written, the MORE Act, whose lead sponsor is Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), would federally deschedule cannabis, expunge the records of those with prior marijuana convictions and impose a federal five percent tax on sales, revenue from which would be reinvested in communities most impacted by the drug war.

The legislation would also create a pathway for resentencing for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as protect immigrants from being denied citizenship over cannabis and prevent federal agencies from denying public benefits or security clearances due to its use.

All of those provisions are subject to change through amendments over the coming week.

“This floor vote represents the first congressional roll call ever on the question of ending federal marijuana criminalization,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “By advancing the MORE Act, the House of Representatives sends an unmistakable signal that America is ready to close the book marijuana prohibition and end the senseless oppression and fear that this failed policy wreaks on otherwise law-abiding citizens.”

“Americans are ready to responsibly legalize and regulate marijuana, and this vote shows some lawmakers are finally listening,” he said.

The bill cleared Nadler’s more than a year ago and has been awaiting floor action since.

Even if the far-reaching reform does pass in the Democratic-controlled chamber, as it’s expected to with some bipartisan support, it remains unlikely that the Senate will follow suit, at least during this Congress. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a champion of the hemp industry but staunchly opposes further marijuana reform.

Even so, a symbolic vote for legalization could send a strong signal to the incoming Biden administration. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the lead Senate sponsor of the MORE Act, but she’s indicated she will not necessarily proactively push the former vice president to evolve further on cannabis reform.

Given Biden’s former approach to championing punitive anti-drug legislation as a senator and his ongoing obstinance on marijuana legalization at a time when polls show that a clear majority of Americans favor the policy change, there remains some skepticism about his willingness to make good on his campaign promises to achieve more modest reforms he has endorsed, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging records.

A transition document the incoming Biden-Harris administration released this month left out mention of those cannabis pledges.

That said, the president-elect has conceded that his work on punitive anti-drug legislation during his time in Congress was a “mistake.”

For what it’s worth, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in August that “the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice would be a constructive player” in advancing legalization.

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Two-Track Effort To Allow Psychedelic Mushrooms In Washington State Launches Amid Broader Drug Decrim Push

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Drug reform advocates won big in Oregon this year, with separate ballot measures to decriminalize possession of all drugs and legalize psychedelic mushrooms for therapeutic use passing on Election Day. Now organizers are setting their sights on similar reforms next door in Washington State with two newly announced efforts.

One seeks to utilize existing administrative mechanisms to expand access to psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use by patients in end-of-life care. The other, a proposed ballot initiative on track for 2022, would put Washington on par with Oregon, decriminalizing small-scale possession of all drugs and legalizing mushrooms for broader therapeutic use.

These efforts come after advocates already announced a separate plan to lobby lawmakers to pass a bill decriminalizing all drugs in 2021.

A healthcare professional is behind the first new psilocybin push via the administrative route. Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, a Seattle physician who specializes in end-of-life care, is hoping to win permission from state and federal regulators to cultivate psilocybin mushrooms and use them to treat patients.

“We know that it’s a naturally occurring substance that we can cultivate safely, we know how to dose it, and there’s really good reason to believe it can help,” Aggarwal said of psilocybin, the main active ingredient in entheogenic mushrooms.

Aggarwal and his clinic, the Advanced Integrative Medical Science Institute, hope to secure legal access to psilocybin for end-of-life patients under state and federal laws that allow patients with terminal diseases to try investigational medications that haven’t been generally approved.

In 2018, President Donald Trump signed the federal “Right to Try Act,” which would give certain patients access to drugs that have not yet been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for broad use. Psilocybin, along with marijuana and MDMA, appears to fit the criteria for the law, including having completed a phase 1 clinical trial and being under active development. Washington State adopted a similar law in 2017.

In September, Aggarwal applied to the Washington State Department of Health’s Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission for a license to grow psilocybin mushrooms with the eventual goal of using them to treat patients in palliative care. The state commission has yet to review the application, Kaiser Health News reported this week.

Aggarwal would also need to obtain approval from the federal government, namely the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “We’re still working on formulating an application to them,” he told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview, adding that his team is consulting with lawyers for guidance.

As for a timeline on the applications? “I wish I could tell you,” Aggarwal said. “There’s really no way to know. This has never been tried before that we’re aware of.”

Meanwhile, more sweeping statewide reform could come in the form of a 2022 ballot question. A top backer of both of Oregon’s successful drug-reform initiatives recently said Washington is the next state on his list.

David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s soap company, has long bankrolled drug reform campaigns. In Oregon last election, he gave $3.4 million to Measure 109, which legalized psilocybin for therapeutic use, and $1 million to Measure 110, which decriminalized all drugs.

Bronner recently told the Daily Beast that he’d like to see Washington voters pass both reforms—medical psilocybin and broader drug decriminalization—in a single initiative on the state’s 2022 ballot.

“It’s moving faster than I would’ve thought,” he said. “I would not have thought we’d be ready for the kind of reforms we’re seeing, and it’s gratifying. I just think we can go further in 2022 and 2024.”

Bronner added that he hopes to team up with other drug-reform funders, such as Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros, to maximize their policy impact. “If we all line up as one grand coalition, we can run twice as many ballot measures in a given cycle,” he told the Daily Beast. “We’re working hard on figuring that out.”

In the meantime, another group of activists in the state are continuing their push for drug decriminalization. Treatment First Washington hopes to see lawmakers take up a proposed decriminalization measure next year that closely resembles Oregon’s Measure 110.

The group originally planned to qualify the Washington measure for the 2020 election, but organizers stopped collecting signatures in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As with Oregon’s recently passed decriminalization measure, Treatment First Washington’s proposal would remove criminal penalties for drug possession, expand treatment for substance misuse and pay for that treatment with tax revenue from the state’s legal cannabis industry.

Aggarwal, the Seattle doctor applying to cultivate mushrooms, said that any of the reform efforts would likely help expand access for his patients.

“This effort would definitely be a lot easier if we had decriminalization,” he said, explaining that treatment could work similarly to how the clinic currently deals with marijuana.

“We kind of do this with cannabis in our office already,” he said. “People can do cannabis-assisted therapy sessions where they bring their own, and there’s a vaporizer and they can have a session with a decriminalized drug.”

Aggarwal said he filed the application because dying patients can’t wait for broader reform through the legislature or the ballot box.

“We just don’t have time to wait for that for patients who are sick now,” he said. “These are patients that really have exhausted legally available psychedelic-assisted therapy, which is ketamine, and I think there’s still a need for more… They need help now and not in 2022.”

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