Efforts to create a taxed and regulated marijuana market in Vermont advanced Thursday after the state Senate approved a bill to allow legal cannabis sales.
The legislation was approved by a roll call vote of 23 to 5—a veto-proof margin. After an additional procedural vote in the Senate, likely on Friday, the proposal will head to the House of Representatives.
If enacted into law, S. 54 would establish the Cannabis Control Board as the state’s regulatory body for a legal marijuana market. Five types of licenses for various cannabis businesses would be available, and cannabis sales would be taxed with an excise tax of 16 percent, plus a two percent local option tax.
The bill also includes measures to encourage women and communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition and the war on drugs to join the newly legal market.
“Today’s strong, tri-partisan vote sends a clear message that Vermonters of all political stripes are ready to regulate commercial cultivation and sale of already-legal cannabis,” Dave Silberman, a pro-bono drug reform advocate said in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “By combining a strong regulatory apparatus with our existing homegrow law, S.54 would take power and profits away from illicit dealers and put them in the hands of consumers and law-abiding entrepreneurs.”
The proposal entered the legislative session with strong support in the Senate, with 15 senators—fully half the chamber—signed on as cosponsors.
During a floor debate before the vote, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears (D) contextualized the growing embrace of marijuana reform around the region. Maine and Massachusetts have enacted legalization, while Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island are considering doing so. Canada implemented marijuana legalization across all provinces and territories this past fall.
“This is no longer where we would be the only ones in the northeast, but one of many,” he said.
Since the bill’s introduction, committees have made amendments to the proposal, including adjusting the rate at which marijuana would taxed and the number of people comprising the regulatory board. The Senate Committee on Judiciary opted to remove language that would have allowed existing medical cannabis dispensaries exclusive rights to sell marijuana products for a year after the new law took effect.
Sen. Ann Cummings (D), who chairs the Finance Committee, talked about looking at other states’ plans to tax and regulate marijuana sales for guidance. “Their structures are diverse as anything you’ve seen. There’s nothing that says this is the best way to tax and regulate,” she said. “This is a brave new world and we’re trying to feel our way forward.”
“The idea was to keep taxes low to encourage migration from the illegal market,” she said of the proposed 16 percent tax for retail sales. “There is no meals tax on edibles and no taxes are applied until the consumer buys the product.”
Sen. Joe Benning (R) said that he traveled to Alaska and Colorado to study their legal marijuana sales systems and found that “neither state has fallen off the planet.”
While out of the Senate’s hands, the bill’s enactment into law is not yet secured. It must still pass through the larger House of Representatives, which has failed in the past to approve tax and regulate bills, though it did vote last year to approve the state’s current noncommercial legalization law that allows low-level possession and home cultivation.
While Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe (D) has fast-tracked efforts to create a legal market, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) has said she isn’t convinced the state is ready to tax and regulate marijuana sales. “You know, I’m honestly really torn on it,” she told Vermont Public Radio last month.
And Gov. Phil Scott (R), who approved the state’s current legal-possession law, has said he would consider signing commercial legalization only if funds were made available for education and prevention measures and roadside tests to detect impaired driving.
A supermajority of House Democrats and Progressives could join the Senate in overriding a potential veto with support of 100 of 150 seats, but cannabis reform support does not split evenly along party lines.
If approved, the bill would go into effect on July 1 of this year, when the board would be formed. Licenses will be given to retailers on or before April 1, 2021.
“Cannabis is legal for adults in Vermont, and it’s time for it to be treated like other products that are legal for adults,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “That means regulating its production and sale to address public health and safety concerns and keep it out of the hands of minors. While some adults would prefer to grow their own cannabis, many would prefer to access it safely and legally from licensed stores. They should have the choice, and that is what this bill will provide.”
Other marijuana-related legislation remains active in Vermont.
A similar bill, H. 196, which sits in the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, has been backed by more than a third of the chamber’s members. Another bill, S. 117, would scrap the specified list of conditions for which doctors can recommend medical cannabis as well as a requirement that patients must have an existing relationship with their doctor before they can get such recommendations.
The Vermont Senate vote is the latest in a string of legislative wins for marijuana reformers around the country this week.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 700 cannabis bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
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In New Hampshire, a bill that would allow adults 21 and older to consume, gift, possess, cultivate, and purchase marijuana from approved retailers was passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
In Hawaii, a bill that would reduce criminal penalties for certain marijuana-based offenses, making them punishable by monetary fines and not jail time, was unanimously approved by a key House committee on Wednesday, while a broader legalization bill cleared a separate committee earlier this month.
And in New Mexico, lawmakers in several committees have voted to advance two separate pieces of marijuana legalization legislation.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
Bernie Sanders Talks Marijuana With Killer Mike, Danny Glover And Ben & Jerry’s Founder
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) led a panel during a presidential campaign stop in North Carolina on Friday where he and surrogates—rapper Killer Mike, actor Danny Glover and Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen—discussed marijuana reform.
At one point, Cohen said that he was arrested after being caught smoking cannabis while he was in school but the police only charged him for littering—a discretionary decision that he said he likely wouldn’t have been afforded if he was black. He speculated that without that privilege, the incident could have cost him loans that allowed him to build his ice cream empire.
Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, opened the conversation by asking Killer Mike to weigh in on the impact of the drug war, particularly on communities of color.
The artist said the “war on drugs, we now know from history, has been a tremendous failure” and that it “was never a war on drugs, it was a war on progressive white kids and black people.”
He discussed the racist origins of prohibition, the role cannabis criminalization has played in mass incarceration and emphasized the need to include restorative justice in a legal marijuana system.
“But we have a greater opportunity, and the greater opportunity is this: marijuana is going to be legal in our lifetime,” he said. “Beyond getting a little stoned in the morning, which I didn’t do this morning because I knew I had to come see you guys, marijuana provides through hemp paper, alternative to plastics, it provides jobs, resources, dispensaries.”
Watch the conversation about cannabis, starting at about 11:20 into the video below:
“We have an opportunity this time to take the people that are exiting jail, have expunged records and creating a pathway as wide as this aisle directly to legal marijuana and creating economic sustainability in the same communities that were robbed of that opportunity,” he said.
“As for me and my stoner friends, we’ll be buying Ben & Jerry’s and voting for Bernard Sanders.”
Glover joked that Mike’s plan is the “real green new deal that we need right here,” riffing off the name of climate change agenda backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
“What we’re talking about now is repairing the wrongs that were done on our communities, and we have a senator who’s going to be the president, who’s saying that we’re not only going to repair the wrongs of the war on drugs but we are going to bring back an era that we are organizing in our communities,” the actor said.
Cohen highlighted racial inequities in marijuana enforcement and broader societal structures, starting by noting that his parents were only able to enter the middle class with the help of a government program providing low-interest mortgages that black people were not entitled to. That program allowed him to go to a good school, he said, where he got busted for cannabis at one point.
“In the midst of getting my higher education, one summer I was smoking some pot with some friends on a beach and the cops caught us,” he said. “We were handcuffed and they took us to the station and they ended up giving us a ticket for littering a lighted cigarette butt on the ground.”
“But I am well aware that if I was black, I would’ve ended up with a criminal record that would have prevented me from getting the loans that we needed to start Ben & Jerry’s,” he said. “It’s really clear to me that if I was black, there wouldn’t have been a Ben & Jerry’s. I’m conscious of that, I think about that, and that’s one of the big reasons I’m supporting Bernie because he’s going to put an end to that system.”
The criminalization of marijuana has been a disaster for communities of color.
We will legalize marijuana, expunge past convictions and invest revenue from legal marijuana back into those communities. pic.twitter.com/x7xrzw1Eu4
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 21, 2019
Sanders closed the panel discussion by asking audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone arrested for marijuana, or were themselves arrested. He did a similar exercise at a campaign rally in South Carolina earlier this week.
After hands shot up, the senator said “this is what the war on drugs has done in this country.”
“It has criminalized so many people in this room. This is amazing,” he said. “The war on drugs has been incredibly destructive for millions and millions of people in this country and we’re going to end that war on drugs and we’re going to make marijuana legal.”
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.
Former Federal Prosecutor’s Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances In South Dakota
A measure to legalize marijuana in South Dakota—introduced by a former federal prosecutor and backed by a leading national cannabis advocacy group—was recently cleared for signature gathering.
Brendan Johnson, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota and whose father represented the state in the U.S. Senate until 2015, filed the initiative in June. It received an official explanatory statement from the attorney general last month and its backers were given the green light to start collecting signatures last week.
“We are excited to move forward with these ballot initiative campaigns,” Johnson told Marijuana Moment. “South Dakota voters are ready to approve both medical marijuana and legalization at the ballot box next year.”
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is supporting the proposed constitutional amendment, as well as a separate statutory initiative to legalize medical cannabis in the state that was approved for signature collection last month.
The former federal prosecutor’s measure, which is being steered by the committee South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, would allow adults 21 and older to possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Individuals would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants. The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be tasked with issuing licenses for manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers.
Sales would be taxed at 15 percent under the initiative, and revenue would be used to fund the program’s implementation, with additional monies going toward public education and the state general fund.
Beside legalizing marijuana, the amendment would also instruct the legislature to enact legislation to legalize hemp and medical cannabis. If the separate statutory medical marijuana legalization initiative, being coordinated by the group New Approach South Dakota, qualifies and passes as well, that latter requirement wouldn’t be necessary.
“The Marijuana Policy Project strongly supports the South Dakota campaign,” MPP Deputy Director Matthew Schweich, who led the organization’s efforts in support of previous legalization campaigns in Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan, told Marijuana Moment. “Across the country, and even in conservative states, voters are demanding marijuana policy reform. Our goal is simple: to effectuate the will of the people when elected officials choose to ignore it.”
Petitioners for the proposed constitutional amendment must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters to qualify for the 2020 ballot. For statutory initiatives, 16,961 signatures are required. MPP’s involvement will likely bolster the campaign’s prospects of meeting that goal.
It’s already clear that marijuana reform measures are going to face resistance from certain quarters, with Gov. Kristi Noem (R) vetoing a hemp legalization bill in March and the state’s Republican party urging residents not to sign ballot petitions.
“Our campaign, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, will be working from now until Election Day 2020 to earn the support of South Dakotans from every corner of the state,” Johnson said.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches
With a vote on marijuana banking issues imminent in the House, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) emphasized on Friday that he will not support cannabis legislation that doesn’t include restorative justice components.
In a tweet that linked to an earlier Marijuana Moment article on his cannabis stance, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wrote that “any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.”
As I said earlier this year, any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.https://t.co/Y1dOwgHbm2
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) September 20, 2019
The statement comes at a critical moment in the marijuana reform movement. House leadership announced on Friday that the first full floor vote on a standalone piece of cannabis reform legislation—a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators—will be held next week. But that development has also created controversy, with several advocacy groups arguing that a vote should be postponed until more wide-ranging reform legislation is passed.
Although Booker didn’t directly reference the banking bill his his tweet, its timing seemed to suggest that he sides with those groups—which include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance—and that he wouldn’t support the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act as written.
Booker’s Senate press secretary confirmed to Marijuana Moment in an email that his boss’s Twitter post was sent directly in reaction to the House banking news.
While some have made the case that the bill would help promote social equity by improving access to banking services for minority business owners, for example, others view the legislation as primarily benefiting large cannabis firms.
Throughout his campaign, the senator has emphasized the need for inclusive and comprehensive marijuana reform. He determined that a bill to protect state cannabis programs from federal intervention that he formerly cosponsored didn’t meet that standard and did not attach his name to the latest version.
“At this point it’s too obvious and urgent and unfair that we’re moving something on marijuana on the federal level and it doesn’t do something on restorative justice,” he told VICE in April. “I want that bill to have some acknowledgement of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities.”
“I get very angry when people talk about legalizing marijuana and then give no light to how marijuana law enforcement was done in ways that fed upon poor communities—black and brown communities. This is a war on drugs that has not been a war on drugs—it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately poor people and disproportionately black and brown people.”
Booker also said that he wants to couple conversations about legalization with talk of expunging prior cannabis convictions “in the same breath.”
The senator’s potential future opposition to a House-passed cannabis banking bill could prove problematic as its supporters work to shepherd the legislation through a chamber where it already faces an uphill path under anti-marijuana Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and skepticism from other GOP lawmakers.
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.