After years of debate, lawmakers on Tuesday gave final approval to a bill that would create a legal retail market for marijuana in Vermont.
The Senate voted 23-6 to accept the report of a legislative committee that hammered out long-standing differences between the House and Senate over the best way to tax and regulate cannabis in the state.
“This has been a long, winding road to get to this point,” Sen. Dick Sears (D- Bennington) told his colleagues before the vote.
Sears said he would be the first to admit “this bill is not perfect,” but he felt it was a good compromise that he hoped Gov. Phil Scott would sign into law.
“I would be surprised if he didn’t, quite frankly,” Sears said. “In many cases, the conference committee kept his positions in mind.”
Scott has consistently raised concerns about legal marijuana’s effect on Vermont's youths and traffic safety, as well as towns' ability to control cannabis businesses. But last week, Scott signaled possible support when he noted the bill had “come a long ways” from where it started.
Asked about the bill at his Tuesday press conference, Scott said he would “reflect on all the areas of disagreement” before making a decision.
The governor had wanted police officers to be able to use saliva tests to check for impaired drivers, something the Senate had long opposed. The compromise would allow such tests, but with a warrant.
The bill would also dedicate some of the tax revenue to youth and drug prevention programs. Cannabis production and products would be taxed at 20 percent, a 14 percent excise tax and a 6 percent sales tax. Of the excise tax, 30 percent would go toward substance abuse programs. All of the sales tax would go to after-school and youth programs.
Scott also supported a measure in the compromise bill that would require towns to “opt-in” before marijuana businesses could locate there, as opposed to an opt-out model that would have required towns to proactively block the businesses.
While the bill received wide support in the Democrat-dominated chamber, Republicans were not shy about expressing their disappointment.
Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) said the underground market in the state and easy access to marijuana among youth was “absolutely horrific” and needed to be dealt with head-on.
He also told lawmakers the “magical revenue stream” they envisioned being generated from taxes was far from assured, given that it is not clear how many towns would embrace such businesses. Establishments could open as soon as May 1, 2022 under the bill.
Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) reminded his colleagues that opposition from House leaders and a “lukewarm”response from the governor gave supporters no option but to compromise. Nevertheless, he said he was proud of the final product.
"This brings an economy that is in Vermont above board,” Pearson said. “It’s a step forward on economic justice, on criminal justice and on racial justice.”
Immediately after approving the bill, the Senate passed a related bill, S.234, to expand the expungement of criminal records for minor marijuana offenses. That bill calls for the automatic expungement of convictions for possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, as well as possession of up to four mature plants and eight immature plants prior to January 2021.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said such a bill may sound like a mundane technical change, but it is anything but.
“The impacts on individual lives can be truly transformative,” Ashe said.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.