Vermont Senate To Fast-Track Retail Cannabis Bill, But Path Not As Clear In House

Jan 7, 2019

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said lawmakers in his chamber will fast-track legislation that would create a retail market for cannabis sales in Vermont, but House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said she isn’t convinced Vermonters are ready for a tax-and-regulate system.

Last year, lawmakers legalized possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana. But Ashe said Vermont is still missing out on revenue from cannabis sales.

“While we have legalized the behavior of tens of thousands of Vermonters, we are losing out on the ancillary benefits that could accrue to a formal, safe, regulated system,” Ashe said.

And Ashe said he doesn’t want Senate committees to get “bogged down” for months with cannabis legislation.

“And so my hope is that the committees will do their due diligence but move quickly and send a bill to the House,” Ashe said.

"While we have legalized the behavior of tens of thousands of Vermonters, we are losing out on the ancillary benefits that could accrue to a formal, safe, regulated system." — Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe

Historically, it’s the House where tax-and-regulate legislation has run into resistance. And its path to approval in 2019 won’t be smooth.

“You know, I’m honestly really torn on it,” said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson.

Johnson said there are some benefits to a tax-and-regulate model, namely quality control of cannabis products that would come with state oversight. But she said the state is less than a year into a law that legalized possession and cultivation of small amounts of cannabis.

“And I want to know what effect that’s having on usage, on highway safety, on just awareness of the dangers,” Johnson said. “And I don’t think a tax-and-regulate system is something to rush into.”

"I want to know what effect that's having on usage, on highway safety, on just awareness of the dangers. And I don't think a tax-and-regulate system is something to rush into." — House Speaker Mitzi Johnson

With the opening of retail cannabis stores in Massachusetts late last year, Ashe said many Vermonters are already participating in a tax-and-regulate system.

“So Vermonters are now driving down there, buying it legally, coming back to Vermont, using it legally,” Ashe said. “But all of the dollars available for public health and other investments are going to Massachusetts, and not Vermont.”

Ashe said that ought to fuel some urgency for a similar statutory framework in Vermont.

But even if House lawmakers can muster majority support for a tax-and-regulate bill, it’s far from certain to become law. Gov. Phil Scott has said he won’t support a retail market for cannabis sales until the state has a roadside test to determine marijuana impairment.

That technology doesn’t exist right now, and it’s unlikely to arrive before lawmakers adjourn later this spring.