Waiting to Inhale: Critics Accuse Gov. Scott of Slow-Walking Establishment of Pot Sales | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Dave Gram Political Columnist

Waiting to Inhale: Critics Accuse Gov. Scott of Slow-Walking Establishment of Pot Sales

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

A new industry is waiting to be born in Vermont, but our pro-business governor seems strangely reluctant to ease it into life.

Two dozen Vermont communities voted last week to allow retail cannabis sales within their borders. Only three municipalities that considered the question on their Town Meeting Day ballots rejected it. There's clearly widespread public support for allowing legal retail sales for recreational use of marijuana in Vermont.

After years of fits and starts, lawmakers sent Gov. Phil Scott a 102-page bill legalizing the sale of cannabis products starting in 2022. They made the handoff in September 2020, at the end of the pandemic-fractured legislative session. Scott apparently didn't want to veto the popular measure with an election just weeks away, so he let it become law without his signature.

Scott's long-standing lack of enthusiasm for retail pot sales was apparent again last week. The Berlin resident was on the losing side when his central Vermont town opted to host cannabis shops.

"Just a personal preference," Scott said of his vote against the municipal ballot item. "If I had a choice of locating a vape shop in Berlin, I would feel the same ... It's just my personal choice." Scott said he was "not upset about it. It's just I'm on the losing end, and it's legal in Vermont, and we'll go from here." 

Last year's law set January 8, 2021, as the deadline for the governor to appoint the three members of a new Cannabis Control Board. The board will license growers, retailers and other industry players and is key to getting retail sales up and running in Vermont. Scott still hasn't made the appointments, and some legalization advocates are asking whether the governor is slow-walking the process.

"If you really want to get something done, you get it done," said Scott Sparks, owner of the Vermont Hempicurean CBD store in Brattleboro, who is planning to expand his business to include legal THC-based products.

Jason Maulucci, Scott's press secretary, pushed back. The retail sales measure didn't become law until October, four months later than in a typical legislative cycle. It set up a cumbersome process for appointments to the board, and Scott warned in a letter to lawmakers that meeting a January deadline would be difficult.

"The timeline which anticipates the recruitment, nomination and appointment of the cannabis control board members by January 8, 2021, with senate advice and consent by January 15, 2021 is too aggressive and may need to be extended," Scott wrote at the time. 

The governor first had to appoint seven members of a special nominating committee to recommend people to serve on the board. "We received a list back from them about two weeks ago," Maulucci said. "Our office has begun interviews of those applicants. We are making good progress given the time constraints."

Dave Silberman, a Middlebury-based attorney and Addison County high bailiff, believes that's not good enough. He said Scott made passage of the marijuana bill difficult with his insistence for years that he would not support it until there was a way to test whether drivers were impaired by pot, just as breath tests are used to combat drunken driving.

"Gov. Scott has a long history of working to delay legalization," Silberman said. "So I, for one, am not surprised he is ignoring the legal timelines set forth in Act 164 and taking his time. I suspect he is doing that because he thinks it will delay the rollout and delay the launch of the retail market."

The law requires that retail licenses be issued — the final step before businesses can open — by October 2022. (Existing medical marijuana dispensaries could obtain licenses and start selling to the public in May 2022.)

But it also includes a long and complex to-do list for the board to complete first. It must devise rules for shop security, advertising and a host of other issues; establish procedures to review applications for licenses; and, eventually, vet would-be sellers.

As the weeks pile up past the January 8 deadline, Silberman said, Scott is "hurting the state, and he's hurting his own future appointees to this board, and he's hurting other people in his administration who are going to be involved in this because he's jamming them."

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), chair of the House Government Operations Committee, identified another hurdle: Some of the Cannabis Control Board's decisions will need to be ratified by the legislature. "The reason the timeline was set the way it was is that there are certain actions the legislature needs to take in order to establish the industry," she said. "And if we don't get recommendations or requests for those appropriations or a request for the fee structure from the Cannabis Control Board this session, then it's going to be another year before any of this gets done."

If the process drags out into 2023, Sparks said, he can maintain Vermont Hempicurean as a going concern based on selling his CBD products and grow supplies. But he's close to finalizing a deal on a new and larger space. "Long-term, I need the cannabis business to make the new location financially viable," he said.

Copeland Hanzas said she has asked occasionally what was taking the governor's office so long. "It would appear that it's just not a priority, which is unfortunate, because this is a new industry. There are businesses who are waiting to apply for licenses to be able to produce or sell, and this is the first real, new economic development opportunity we have had in this state for a long time. New industry, new jobs, new revenue for the state," she said. "I can't quite fathom what the holdup is."

I'm going to stick up for the governor on this one. Maulucci said the office currently is reviewing 10 applications for the three seats on the board. It doesn't sound like anyone's sitting on their hands. Government processes just take time.

If the board isn't in place until May or June, perhaps it can produce its recommended license fee structure and take the other next steps by late summer, in time for a one-day special session of the legislature to issue its approvals and keep the process moving. 

I'm also sympathetic to the frustration of legalization advocates. They've been waiting a long time for this eminently reasonable step to come to pass. In early 2018, Vermont legalized possession of up to an ounce of cannabis, but only now is it on the cusp of authorizing retail sales of cannabis products. We're almost there, folks. Perhaps the best advice for the time being is to take out the stuff you picked up on your last pass through Greenfield, Mass., fill up a bowl and relax.

Shirt Tale

It struck me as a welcome challenge when more than 50 prominent Vermonters signed a January 25 letter calling out the Vermont press corps, of which I'm a longtime member, for too many gender-based stereotypes in our coverage.

Alerted to some of the sexist language that had appeared in VTDigger.org, Anne Galloway, founding editor of the online news site, said she was "frankly embarrassed that our organization has been part of the problem" and promised reforms. Last week, VTDigger ran an excellent story under the byline of its data reporter, Erin Petenko, about men dominating the discussion — both reporters asking questions and public officials responding to them — at Gov. Scott's twice-weekly news conferences. 

"Man on the beat: Men outnumber, and out-talk, women at governor's press conferences," the headline said.

But as I finished Petenko's story and perused the rest of the site, my eye landed on a boldface pair of words in an ad on the right-hand side of the page. "Muff Diver," it said, and in smaller type "Coming up for air since '69" and "Exploring the realm of the bearded clam." Some crude artwork accompanied the slogans. The display was on one of several T-shirts being advertised by a web-based company. 

It was jarring, especially to someone who'd just been reading and thinking about sexism in the media. As I looked into how this happened, I learned some things. First and foremost, the same ad has appeared on the Seven Days website in recent days. Yikes!

I talked both with Jim Lehnhoff, chief revenue officer at VTDigger, and Don Eggert, associate publisher and creative director at Seven Days, and they gave similar explanations. Media outlets sometimes have extra space on their websites that they have not sold to local advertisers, so they run national ads that are produced by internet ad networks. Those networks operate as a go-between for national companies that want to sell their products in local markets but don't want to negotiate with every small- to medium-size media outlet in the country. They sometimes show ads to individuals based on their web browsing history, but I don't think I'd been shopping for T-shirts on my work laptop.

Staff at the local media outlets do not see the ads in question before they pop up on their sites. And therefore, some might argue, the news sites can't be held accountable.

I'm going to push back on that a bit. Local media have a choice about how much of the national ad stream to serve up to their consumers. I acknowledge the strong financial incentive, especially during the hard times brought on by the pandemic. But there is some responsibility here.

Lehnhoff said last Friday that he was "horrified" by the ad and VTDigger would block that particular advertiser from appearing on its website. Eggert said he would talk with others in leadership at Seven Days before making such a decision. I hope they, too, figure out a way to block these ads. 

Correction, March 11, 2021: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of candidates the governor was considering for the Cannabis Control Board.