Gov. Phil Scott announced Wednesday evening that he will allow the legislature’s tax-and-regulate cannabis bill to become law without his signature, paving the way for legal marijuana sales in Vermont to begin by the spring of 2022.
Scott, who has long been reluctant to support the creation of a legalized cannabis market, wrote in a letter to lawmakers that he believes they made “substantial progress” addressing his concerns. But, he noted, “there is still more work to be done” on issues of road safety, misuse prevention and racial equity, the Republican governor urged lawmakers to revisit the law next session.
“I believe we are at a pivotal moment in our nation's history which requires us to address systemic racism in our governmental institutions,” Scott wrote. “We must take additional steps to ensure equity is a foundational principle in a new market.”
Scott also announced Wednesday that he had signed another bill that will automatically expunge low-level marijuana convictions and double the amount of the drug people can posses without being charged with a crime. Lawmakers have estimated the expungement expansion will benefit thousands of Vermonters.
Scott’s decision to not block the retail bill, S.54, brings an end to what has been a yearslong pursuit for many lawmakers and pot advocates. The state legislature legalized the possession and cultivation of small amounts of weed for people 21 and older two years ago but chose not to allow legal sales at the time.
The new law establishes a Cannabis Control Board that will be responsible for regulation and licensing all stages of the supply chain for legal weed. Existing medical marijuana dispensaries can begin applying for what are known as "integrated licenses" on April 1, 2022, and can start selling to consumers the following month. The remaining retailers can begin applying for licenses September 1, 2022, and can begin selling at the beginning of that October.
Lawmakers spent the last two years fine-tuning the proposal, finishing work on the bill during September's special budget session.
They took particular care to address Scott's stated concerns, settling on a provision that will require towns to “opt-in” before marijuana retailers can be located there — as opposed to an opt-out model favored by some that would have required towns to proactively block such businesses.
The legislature also dedicated some tax revenue to youth and drug prevention programs. Cannabis production and products will be taxed at 20 percent — a 14 percent excise tax and a 6 percent sales tax. Thirty percent of the excise tax will go toward substance abuse programs, while all of the sales tax will go to after-school and youth programs.
And while the bill fell short of his desire for roadside, warrantless saliva tests — instead requiring that police officers get a court order — Scott applauded the bill's call for additional roadside detection training. He said he was also glad that testimony from drug recognition officers will be admissible in court.
"These are important steps, but please know that I will continue to push for more solutions that will deter drugged driving, hold drugged drivers accountable, and keep Vermonters safe while on our roads," Scott wrote.
Scott detailed several qualms he still had with the bill, largely focused on issues that several nonprofit organizations and businesses have raised over the market's timeline and approach to furthering racial justice.
"Despite testimony and proposed legislation presented to the committees of jurisdiction early in the session, the concerns with this bill of the communities historically most negatively affected by cannabis enforcement were not meaningfully incorporated," Scott wrote.
He took particular issue with the licensing rules, which he said will “disproportionately benefit” existing medical marijuana dispensaries by giving them “an unfair head start on market access."
“This creates an inequitable playing held both for our smaller minority and women-owned business applicants, and other small Vermont growers and entrepreneurs," Scott wrote.
But instead of heeding calls to deploy his veto pen, Scott recommended that lawmakers consider several specific ideas next year. Those include a “social equity applicant” license category, a 50 percent licensing fee waiver for such applicants, and additional technical and financial support.
“Justice should be foundational to our work, not an add-on to be figured out secondary to commercial or other interests,” Scott wrote.
Pot advocates supportive of the bill celebrated Scott's decision on Wednesday night. "The work of creating a responsible and equitable industry must continue, but this is a huge step forward!" tweeted the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana.
"Thank you for getting out of the way, Governor," tweeted Dave Silberman, a Middlebury attorney and pro bono weed advocate.
Scott addressed his decision to not sign the bill during a gubernatorial debate on Wednesday night with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat who has been a long advocate of retail cannabis.
"This wasn’t a high priority for me, but it was for many in the legislature," said Scott, adding that he is not philosophically opposed to the measure.
"There’s still areas that are problematic within the bill, but again, I felt that they had made a good faith effort to go forward," he said. "It’s inevitable. We have Massachusetts and Maine and Canada who legalized, and it was just a matter of time before [we] did."
Zuckerman said he was pleased the bill would becoming law. "Too bad we didn’t three or four more years ago to have led the way for our economy," he added.