Pot Legalization In Vermont May Take A Hit In 2015

Dec 22, 2014

Marijuana legalization advocates have been laying the groundwork for a big legislative push in 2015. But Vermont lawmakers don’t seem inclined to follow in the footsteps of Washington and Colorado any time soon.

Earlier this year, Burlington lawyer Carl Lisman quietly registered a rather noteworthy trade name. It’s called “Vermont Cannabis,” and its purpose, according to the paperwork filed at the corporations division at the Vermont Secretary of State, is the “promotion of cannabis products.”

It’s unclear what Carl Lisman’s intent is – he did not return several calls seeking comment. But Vermont Cannabis is perhaps a forerunner in a legal marijuana economy that advocates hope will soon arrive in the Green Mountains.

“Creating a legal market for marijuana would result in businesses being able to make money, hire people, create jobs, increase economic activity in Vermont, and we see it being a win for Vermont businesses,” says Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Creating a legal market for marijuana would result in businesses being able to make money, hire people, create jobs, increase economic activity in Vermont, and we see it being a win for Vermont businesses." - Matt Simon, Marijuana Policy Project

Simon’s group is working to pass legalization laws across the country. Simon says his organization doesn’t work for or with the cannabis industry – MPP supports reform solely on policy grounds, he says.

But green has been gold for weed capitalists around the country. And would-be cannabis entrepreneurs are already contemplating how to make money if lawmakers legalize the drug here.

Profits will likely have to wait, however. While proponents of taxing and regulating cannabis had eyed 2015 as their moment, even some of the most strident advocates now say prospects are looking dim.

“I don’t think it’s going to be something of a major priority this year,” says Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning. “I think people are still waiting to see how it works with the decriminalization, and also with Washington and Colorado, trying to figure out what they’ve done.”

Benning is among the Republicans who support the "taxation and regulation" of marijuana, as proponents like to call the reform effort. But he says his colleagues just aren’t there yet.

"I don't think it's going to be something of a major priority this year. I think people are still waiting to see how it works with the decriminalization, and also with Washington and Colorado, trying to figure out what they've done." - Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning

The RAND Corporation will unveil a state-commissioned study next month showing how much Vermont could expect to collect in tax revenue, if marijuana were legalized. And the crop’s capacity to bolster state revenues has made it an appealing concept to people who might otherwise be more concerned about the potential negative social impacts.

Simon’s organization will try to convince lawmakers to adopt a legalization bill in 2015, and have been laying the groundwork for a push. MPP earlier this year hired a field director for its operations in Vermont.   

“For the last six months she’s been going around the state meeting with various individuals, opinion leaders , organizations, just to reach out, hear what their thoughts are, to see who’s supportive, who’s not, and if people aren’t supportive, what their questions and concerns are – just trying to advance the dialogue,” Simon says.

The group also has a paid grassroots outreach director in the state, and has contributed thousands of dollars to local and statewide candidates for political office in Vermont over the past few years.

But House Speaker Shap Smith says he wants to wait to see how the cannabis industry unfolds in Colorado and Washington before taking the leap in Vermont.

"I think taking that time will ... give us better sense of the way to do things, as opposed to the way not to do things." - House Speaker Shap Smith

“And I think taking that time will make any legalization effort more, I guess I will say give us better sense of the way to do things, as opposed to the way not to do things,” Smith says.

A statewide coalition, called Smart Approaches to Marijuana Vermont, has already begun working to oppose the legalization effort. Leaders of the group say legalization might exacerbate substance abuse problems the state already deals with.

But Simon says one need only look at high marijuana usage rates among teenagers in Vermont to see how ineffective prohibition has been at solving the drug problem.

“We argue that by regulating the production and sale of marijuana, by having it sold in a regulated environment to people that have to be 21 years old, that we may actually be able to improve that situation,” Simon says.

The RAND study is due on Jan. 15.

This story was edited at 1:19 p.m. on 12/23/2014