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Some Vermont Towns Just Say No to Cannabis Legalization Parties

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Willow Crossing Farm mailbox - SARA TABIN
  • Sara Tabin
  • Willow Crossing Farm mailbox

Willow Crossing Farm in Johnson is a remote 30-acre property nestled between rolling hills and the Lamoille River. The tree farm, which has a greenhouse full of hemp, will soon host 2,000 marijuana enthusiasts who are gearing up for Heady Vermont's Legalization Celebration.

The plans for mass marijuana merriment on July 1, the very day pot becomes legal in Vermont, took plenty of twists and turns to reach this out-of-the-way place. Heady Vermont, a cannabis advocacy, news and events organization, first sought to hold the festival at the Barn at Lang Farm, a wedding venue in Essex Junction. But town officials effectively blocked the event, declaring that smoking weed at the facility would be against the law.

The new recreational marijuana law, formally known as Act 86, makes smoking in public illegal. Town of Essex attorney Bill Ellis said that state law broadly defines what is public as including any "place of accommodation," such as stores, restaurants and other locales open to all.

Since anyone can purchase tickets to the festival, the town deemed it public — and demanded a THC-free pot party. "We are going to take actions against violations of law; we are going to do our job," said Essex Police Chief Rick Garey.

Town officials "just wanted to wage war in any way they could," fumed Jon Lang, the property owner. "It's all bureaucratic bullshit."

Tim Fair, an attorney specializing in cannabis and the event's legal counsel, said that he could have fought any arrests in court. Still, with a deadline looming, Heady pivoted and moved the event to Willow Crossing.

The spat in Essex showcases the hazy understanding of aspects of Vermont's new law. What's allowed at such gatherings has local officials, police and even some state lawmakers scratching their heads.

Fair said there's plenty of potential for confusion. For instance, he said, would an Airbnb room be considered public if it were in a private residence?

"Should somebody decide to prosecute these cases, it will be challenged," Fair declared. Existing cannabis case law will be turned on its head after legalization, he added, predicting that cases will end up in Vermont Supreme Court.

The Vermont State Police agree with Fair's assessment that the courts will ultimately decide what's legal in some instances. At a roundtable discussion at headquarters in Waterbury last week, Capt. James Whitcomb said that, for now, troopers plan to work closely with local state's attorneys as they consider whether to bring criminal cases.

Heady's event isn't the only one prompting questions. In tiny West Dover in southern Vermont, another July 1 legalization celebration has caused controversy. Sandy MacDougall, owner of Layla's Riverside Lodge, ran into resistance when he asked local officials to provide $14,000 in town economic development funds to hold a festival in partnership with the Lodge at Mount Snow. Dubbed the Original Green Mountain Cannabis and Music Festival, the concert's online banner advertises "Smoke Easy Sunday."

Dover Selectboard chair Joshua Cohen said the request came even as the town was circulating a survey gauging whether voters would support an ordinance banning local medical or recreational cannabis dispensaries. Without those results, Cohen said, he had to err on the side of caution and deny the funds. When survey results were reported on June 18, a majority of participants favored barring both kinds of dispensaries in town.

MacDougall accused the selectboard of being anti-cannabis but said the festival will go forward as planned. He expressed enthusiasm about the tourism the event will spur.  

"If you look at what we have here during the summertime, it's a ghost town," MacDougall said.

Dover's police chief, Randall Johnson, agreed with Essex Police Chief Garey that a festival on a commercial property is public and that smoking would therefore be illegal. Johnson did not say whether he would arrest attendees who smoke, explaining he is working with organizers and will deal with festival issues as they arise.

MacDougall said he expects that people will light up at the festival. "If they want to smoke, smoke. It's legal," he exclaimed.

But he said he will hire plainclothes security officers to throw out anyone caught dealing marijuana, which will remain illegal.

The event will end by 8 p.m., and its planners took steps to make it as acceptable to the town as possible, said MacDougall.

Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), who sits on the Governor's Marijuana Advisory Commission, said he believes the law is clear. A commercial enterprise, including a wedding venue or a tree farm, is not a private place in the eyes of the law, he said.

"If somebody was to come to me that owns one of those properties and ask me if they would be in violation of the law for holding a festival for some group of people to come and smoke," Benning said, "I would argue to them that they are in fact a public accommodation and that would be illegal."

Marijuana commission member Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said he was not sure whether smoking at a festival would be legal. He said his goal is to pass legislation for a taxed-and-regulated system, since regulation could resolve some of the gray areas in the law.

A not-so-gray area: The Newport Selectboard passed an ordinance last week banning the sale of marijuana within city limits, showing that Dover isn't the only place hesitant to host marijuana dispensaries.

The Heady festival has thus far gotten a warmer reception in Johnson, which does not require an outdoor-event permit. The selectboard voted to grant a one-hour extension to the town's noise ordinance, provided organizers met several demands, including having security and emergency medical services on-site.

Keith Morris, who owns Willow Crossing Farm, emphasized that the festival is about networking within the cannabis business community and fighting stigmas around marijuana — not just getting high.

"Most people have matured from that it's-about-getting-fucked-up mentality," he said. Still, Morris asserted that the ticketed festival is "private," meaning attendees will be able to smoke legally.

Nat Kinney, a Johnson Selectboard member, said the event is totally legal and that the town has no authority to stop it.

"Ultimately, if it is well run, it has the effect of bringing more people into Johnson, which is an awesome town," Kinney said. "People can come see a really wonderful little town with shops, a great little grocery store, a great farmstand with fresh organic produce."

Johnson Selectboard Chair Eric Osgood had a different take. Given drug issues already plaguing Johnson, a festival celebrating cannabis sends the wrong message, he said. But he noted that the farm has a good track record for public events and that hosting the festival is within organizers' rights.  

"It's legalized in Vermont now; you have to respect that," said Osgood.

As for the local police?

Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux Jr. said public safety is his biggest priority. He's met with organizers to prepare for the crowd and said he was impressed with the Heady team, which agreed to pay the department's costs. 

Marcoux also reviewed safety preparations with State Police Capt. Robert Cushing. They discussed whether the festival would be a private or public gathering but did not come to a firm conclusion.

"We both agreed it was pretty ambiguous," Marcoux said. "It seems private to us — but we are not attorneys."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Dazed and Confused"

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