The lawmakers seeking common ground on ways to establish a legal recreational cannabis market in Vermont opened their first meeting Wednesday by stressing how much they agree on.
“We’re here today to discuss differences between the bodies,” Rep. John Gannon (D-Wilmington) said. “But I think it’s important to appreciate how fundamentally close we are in many ways with respect to the bill.”
Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said that many of the differences amounted to little more than “word-smithing” that could be ironed out easily enough.
But it quickly became clear the House and Senate remain deeply divided on a number of core issues that could prove significant hurdles to forging a compromise during the brief upcoming legislative budget session.
At one point, the House proposal to allow police to stop drivers for not wearing seatbelts seemed perilously close to scuttling the whole effort.
Sears called the inclusion of the provision “disappointing” and a “huge stumbling block” that the Senate had long opposed. He said he wasn’t about to give police another reason to pull people over in the current climate surrounding racial justice.
Gannon argued that it was an important safety issue for House members, contending that the rule would increase seatbelt usage and lower highway fatalities. But Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) lambasted the idea as having nothing to do with taxing and regulating an adult cannabis market.
“This is a deal breaker for us, so if the House is going to insist on this provision, then we might as well walk away today,” Sears said.
That didn’t happen, and for now they agreed to disagree on the issue. Two more sessions of the six-member conference committee are scheduled over the next two weeks.
But the episode highlighted how far apart the two sides remain on a range of issues, including tax rates, how the revenue should be spent and local control of cannabis businesses.
The Senate has been frustrated by how long it has taken the House to draft its version of the bill. The Senate passed S.54 in March 2019, and the House passed its version a year later.
The House has added a number of regulations meant to address perceived risks that seemed to baffle senators. Upon hearing of a requirement for the Cannabis Control Board to issue a report on establishing minimum CBD levels in cannabis products to prevent “cannabis induced psychosis,” Sears dropped his head into his hand in exasperation.
Moments later he shook his head and smiled at the requirement for the board to explore prohibitions of the sale of cannabis-related paraphernalia by non-cannabis retailers.
The two chambers also differ strongly on the key issue of local control. The Senate version has an opt-out provision for towns that want to prohibit some or all cannabis business. The House version envisions an opt-in system in which towns would have to decide to allow retail shops before applications would be entertained.
Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) imagined himself as a cannabis entrepreneur trying to set up shop in Vermont and needing to wait until an individual town had warned and voted to approve such businesses.
“It seems to me if you’re going to work to kill this altogether, the best way to kill it would be to throw an obstacle statewide at every entrepreneur” like the provision in the House bill, he said.
Sears agreed the provision seemed problematic and might lead to retailers putting political pressure on towns to vote in favor of allowing such establishments. Towns could also impose huge impact fees on applicants in such situations, which, “for lack of better term, it’s kind of a bribe to the town,” Sears said.
The two sides also have stark differences on how cannabis would be taxed. The Senate bill envisions taxes of up to 18 percent — a 16 percent excise tax for the state, with the money going to the general fund, and a 2 percent sales tax for cites and towns that approve it. The House version is 20 percent, with a 14-percent excise tax and an up to 6-percent sales tax.
Sears noted the two proposals are not far apart numerically, but a House requirement that 30 percent of the excise tax be spent by the Substance Misuse Prevention Oversight and Advisory Council was a nonstarter for senators eying lean budget years ahead.
“I’m concerned about giving 30 percent of the revenue to an advisory group to determine how it’s spent,” Sears said. “That bothers me very much.”
Despite the differences, the tone of the meeting remained largely productive and collegial.
“We’ve almost got you to say yes a few times, here, Dick,” joked Rep. Rob LaClair (R- Barre).