The marijuana legalization bill that Gov. Phil Scott is expected to sign in the next few days won’t create the above-board commercial market that many pot-reform advocates had been pushing for, but cannabis entrepreneurs say it’s a step in the right direction.
If the cannabis industry has an impresario in Vermont, his name is Eli Harrington. He’s the co-founder of Heady Vermont, which bills itself as the state’s source for cannabis advocacy, news and events. And a couple evenings ago, the 30-year-old surveyed his latest production.
“This is the humanization of cannabis in Vermont,” Harrington said, looking out at a cannabis trade show of sorts Tuesday evening.
There was a bright red booth to Harrington’s right, for a marketing and web design firm. A hemp grower off to his left was manning a table with glass jars full of dark green cannabis buds.
It was all happening after hours in the Statehouse cafeteria.
“These are real people, mostly law-abiding, real Vermont citizens, who are here and represent the present and more importantly I think the future of what this plant can be in this state,” Harrington said.
That future is by no means guaranteed. Opponents of a taxed and regulated commercial marijuana market - like the ones in Colorado and Washington State - will work hard to forestall what advocates view as the next logical progression in Vermont’s cannabis evolution.
But legal uncertainties aside, the growth potential in the cannabis sector is promising enough to lure entrepreneurs like Tim Fair, who started a company called Vermont Cannabis Solutions two years ago.
“We’re the state’s first cannabis-focused law firm,” Fair said Tuesday. “So while there’s a lot of business law firms that can help companies get started, I’ve been for the last two years pretty intently studying the issue.”
So far at least, Fair says most of his business comes from the state’s nascent hemp industry - Vermont legalized cultivation of hemp in 2013.
Fair says the legalization bill Scott is expected to sign soon won’t in and of itself allow the cannabis industry to hit its stride., but he says it sets the stage for a more lucrative economic future.
“And when people see that the sky doesn’t fall, the next logical step is, well, its legal. Let’s reap the revenue. And I think that’s going to happen faster than people think,” Fair said.
Fair said belief in the inevitability of a legal commercial market has already prompted a rush of investor capital in Vermont.
“What I’ve been hearing from a lot of prospective investors is that they were waiting for the legalization bill to pass. Once that passed, that gave them the confidence to take that risk, to take that start, to start that risk discussion with entrepreneurs in order to receive private placement funding,” Fair said.
The market potential of the hemp industry alone has been enough to lure entrepreneurs like Carl Christensen into the sector. Christensen is co-founder of the Northeast Processing, which will be the state’s largest hemp processing facility once it’s built.
Christensen said the company’s business model doesn’t hinge on adult-use marijuana market in Vermont. But he said he could see Northeast Processing transitioning to that space if the tax and regulate system does arrive. And he said Vermont’s agricultural roots make it primed to capitalize on the sector, if and when it arrives.
“Vermont’s really going to make a name for itself like it has in other agrarian segments of the economy, like the cheese market, and brewing and things like that,” Christensen said.
Lauren Andrews, who owns AroMed Aromatherapy in Montpelier, stood behind a table loaded with essential oils infused with CBD - a non-psychoactive compound in cannabis. Andrews said a tax and regulate system might allow her to expand her commercial footprint.
“CBD works beautifully with essential oils, but often just the inclusion of a small amount of THC can put a remedy over the top and make it that much better,” Andrews said.
She’ll have to hold off on selling those THC remedies for now, since commercial sales under Vermont’s coming legalization law will still be forbidden.
But cannabis entrepreneurs are already betting on a future where that will change.