Vermont Lawmakers Strike a Deal on Retail Pot Bill | Off Message

Vermont Lawmakers Strike a Deal on Retail Pot Bill


  • Luke Eastman
Lawmakers have struck a deal on the bill that would legalize cannabis sales in Vermont, ending weeks of negotiations and bringing the state closer than ever to setting up a regulated retail market.

House and Senate members of the S.54 conference committee signed off on their compromise proposal late Tuesday after settling two outstanding issues related to local funding and advertising, according to Rep. John Gannon (D-Wilmington).

They agreed to provide towns a share of the state's cannabis licensing fees instead of the tax revenue model preferred by the Senate. In exchange, the House dropped a controversial — and constitutionally dubious — all-out ban on weed advertising. Terms of the deal were first reported in the Bennington Banner.

The bill will now come up for another vote in the House and Senate before it heads to Gov. Phil Scott, who has not indicated whether he will sign it.

Gannon described the three-week negotiations as a "roller coaster" but said he was proud of his team's success. "We got things that were really important to the House," he said.
Indeed, in addition to the local funding model, the compromise proposal contains House-preferred measures on local control, taxes and road safety. The bill would create an opt-in marketplace, meaning towns would need to decide to allow retail shops before applications would be entertained. It would impose a 14 percent excise tax and a 6 percent sales tax on marijuana transactions. And it would allow police to obtain warrants to test the saliva of those suspected of driving under the influence. 

Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), the Senate's lead negotiator, said his chamber had to give "quite a bit" to get the bill across the finish line. He said he was "disappointed" about several such concessions, particularly the local funding model.

Still, Sears commended his team for quashing the House-backed measure that would have allowed police to pull over drivers for not wearing a seat belt, which he said was a nonstarter in the Senate.

And Sears said he was pleased that the Senate convinced the House to drop the weed ad ban, which had initially been settled in the House's favor but resurfaced as a tension point after Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan informed lawmakers that he believed it would not stand up in court.
The bill now allows the director of the yet-to-be-created Cannabis Control Board to work with the attorney general and the Department of Health on advertising standards for both medical and recreational cannabis products.

"A couple of sections are going to be tough sells for us on the Senate floor," Sears said. "But I do think our colleagues will recognize that we worked as hard as we could."

The bill will have one final hurdle if it successfully clears the chambers a final time: Gov. Scott, who has long been reluctant to approve a taxed-and-regulated cannabis market and has remained opaque about his feelings on the current bill.
Scott has said that he would consider any legislation that hits his desk as long as it addresses his concerns about road safety, youth prevention and local control. While the bill does not fully address all of his demands — he, for example, wanted a roadside warrantless saliva test, which the bill does not allow  — both Sears and Gannon said they believed the legislature has done enough to appease the Republican governor.

"I hope he’ll sign the bill," Sears said. "I don't know why he wouldn't."