2 Major Business Groups Oppose Marijuana Legalization In Vermont

Dec 29, 2015

Backers of the push to legalize marijuana say the commercial cannabis market will be a boon for the Vermont economy. But some major employers are challenging that argument, and at least two industry trade associations say legal weed will undermine the quality of the state workforce.

Proponents of legal cannabis say it isn’t about the money. In truth, though, the economic impact of a commercial marijuana industry will loom large over the legislative debate next year. And two key business groups say the proposed bill will do more harm than good.

“So the concern would be whether increased marijuana usage would have an incremental effect on workplace accident rates, and both the direct effect of that, in terms of people being injured, but also the costs of workers compensation associated with it,” says Bill Driscoll, the vice-president of Associated Industries of Vermont.

Driscoll’s organization represents more than 500 businesses in the manufacturing sector. Driscoll says those employers worry that legal marijuana would curb productivity and make it harder to find qualified workers.

“Another longstanding challenge that a lot of manufacturers and employers have had in Vermont [is] finding enough applicants who can pass the initial drug screening in order to qualify for the job in the first place,” Driscoll says. “So the concern … is if we have increased usage, is that going to reduce the pool of available talent that we can hire to fill positions.”

"You run the risk of people operating equipment, whether it be driving trucks, operating heavy equipment on a job site, operating dangerous equipment on a job site, that could very well be under the influence of marijuana." — John Connor, business owner and vice-president of the AGC Vermont board

Another industry trade group, the Associated General Contractors of Vermont, voted to take a formal stand against legalization at a recent meeting of its governing board. John Connor owns and operates Connor Contracting, a 35-employee business that specializes in commercial construction, and is vice-president of the AGC Vermont board.

“So now you run the risk of people operating equipment, whether it be driving trucks, operating heavy equipment on a job site, operating dangerous equipment on a job site, that could very well be under the influence of marijuana,” Connor says.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning has been a key supporter of the legalization legislation. Benning, a Republican, says the concerns of people like Connor and Driscoll are predicated on the assumption that legalization will lead to dramatic increases in the number of people who consume marijuana.

“But the reality is, I think Vermonters who want to use marijuana are currently using it, and I don’t see that as being any kind of a major spike to change that fact,” Benning says.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the percentage of adults who reported using marijuana in the previous month jumped by more than 20 percent in Colorado and Washington between 2012 and 2013, the last year for which that data is available. It was a timeframe during which recreational marijuana was legal, but before the states has established the commercial framework for cultivation and retail sales.

But states that didn’t legalize marijuana saw similarly high increases in usage rates for the last month – Maine’s jumped by 20 percent, for instance, Missouri’s by 22 percent, and Georgia’s by 33 percent. And Benning says he hasn’t heard any complaints from employers in the wake of the decriminalization law that Vermont passed in 2013.

“So unless somebody can come up with some evidence that this is an actual fact as opposed to a fear, I don’t share the same fear,” Benning says.

Driscoll says the legislation also raises some questions about employers’ ability to restrict off-jobsite use of an intoxicant that would be legal under state law.

“It’s still sort a very new and murky field, so it raises some concerns about potential legal risks for employers,” Driscoll says.

Driscoll says lawmakers ought to let things play out elsewhere before moving forward here.

“At the very least, I think that these concerns raise a lot of serious questions and issues that would warrant more time or more study to see how they play out in the states that have actually legalized marijuana,” Driscoll says.

Connor says there’s no way for employers to test intoxication levels for cannabis, and that new forms of cannabis delivery – edibles or vaporizing, for example – will make it even harder for employers to determine whether workers are showing up high for work.

“So now you run the risk of people operating equipment, whether it be driving trucks, operating heavy equipment on a job site, operating dangerous equipment on a job site, that could very well be under the influence of marijuana,” Connor says.

Connor says if lawmakers really want to spur economic development, there are far more useful places to focus their energy.

“I think there are so many issues out there that have not been dealt with yet, and there’s so much that needs to be learned, that we ought to be putting this on the back shelf, and addressing the larger issues that we have in our society,” Connor says.

The Senate Committee on Government Operations is expected to hold a vote on the legalization bill in the first two weeks of the 2016 legislative session.