For the first time, Vermont's attorney general has voiced strong support for taxing and regulating cannabis.
“We have to have a regulated market,” T.J. Donovan told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday morning.
The state's top law enforcement officer said his “position has evolved” since last year, when he supported a measure that legalized adult possession and home cultivation of weed but didn’t allow sales.
That policy hasn’t worked, according to Donovan, who now supports S.54, a bill that would allow legal pot sales.
“We’ve seen that we can’t tell Vermonters that they can possess marijuana and be silent about how to obtain it because capitalism exists and is only going to grow in this area,” Donovan said.
He referred to this week’s bust of Good Times Gallery on Burlington's Church Street as further evidence that unregulated sales remain prevalent in Vermont.
The proposed legislation, which is sponsored by 15 of Vermont's 30 Senators, would establish a state-run regulatory board tasked with developing and implementing a statewide retail cannabis market by April 2021.
Supporters of the proposal say that tax revenues from legal sales would give state officials the money they need to educate kids about the risks of youth drug use and would keep consumers safe from potentially contaminated weed.
Those issues aren't new to the second-term Attorney General.
Soon after last year’s law took effect July 1, businesses popped up offering “free” weed in exchange for a “delivery fee” or as a free gift with the purchase of an overpriced item. Donovan’s office stepped in after less than a month and issued a legal advisory that said such business deals are illegal.
Most of those businesses followed the advice and shut down their operations, according to Donovan. But he said he was “not naïve enough” to think that illegal pot sales have dried up.
Donovan said the consumer protection concerns related to those business ventures — they were distributing marijuana to customers who had no way of knowing the potency or origin of the product — convinced him that Vermont needs to take the “next logical step.”
“This is about protecting consumers and protecting kids, and we need regulations. So I support the bill and I look forward to working with you,” Donovan told the committee.
The AG offered no criticisms of the legislation and didn't propose any changes to senators.
Donovan also endorsed a push for expungement of old marijuana convictions, a policy pitched by legalization advocates who say it would help reverse the damage done by the decades-long ban on pot.
Dave Silberman, a Middlebury attorney and cannabis reform advocate, wrote Wednesday in a letter to lawmakers that they should consider automatic expungement of all past convictions, without requiring Vermonters to submit paperwork or pay fees.
Donovan said Thursday that he doesn’t support that approach, noting that there are a wide array of marijuana convictions, from trafficking to possession of small amounts.
“Are you talking possession, are you talking sales, are you talking trafficking?” Donovan said. “I think it’s got to be individual,” and based on a legal petition to the government, he said, adding that he doesn’t oppose the elimination of fees for Vermonters seeking expungement.
Gov. Phil Scott has said he will not support any bill to regulate marijuana unless it provides roadside safety funding and enforcement mechanisms in addition to money for education and prevention programs, which the current version of S.54 does not include.