HISTORIC CANNABIS HUB OF NEW ENGLAND PREPARES FOR LEGALIZATION

BY FELISA ROGERS

ON JULY 1, the good people of Vermont will join the growing ranks of Americans who can legally roll a jay in the privacy of their own homes. At

first glance, Vermont’s legalization legislation looks familiar. House Bill 511 will allow adults to possess up to one ounce of weed or five grams of hash. The usual provisions apply when it comes to underage kids, public smoking, and driving under the influence.

In some ways, HB 511 is progressive: unlike Washington state’s cluster-fuck legislation, Vermont’s law accommodates home growers. Gardeners will be allowed to grow two mature cannabis plants and four immature plants. The one ounce limit is not applicable to cannabis harvested from homegrown plants, provided that said weed is stored onsite and “reasonable precautions are taken to prevent unauthorized access.”

But for Vermonters who don’t follow the letter of the law, penalties remain unusually harsh. Possession of slightly more than an ounce of cannabis or more than two plants could land you in jail for six months. Those caught with two ounces could face three years in prison and a $10,000 fine. (For comparison, Oregonians can possess up to two ounces before facing potential incarceration, with a maximum sentence of six months. And meanwhile, in benevolent Colorado, possession of two ounces is considered a petty offense, punishable with a $100 fine).

The other glaring problem is that the bill doesn’t address retail operations or taxation. Although medical dispensaries will remain in business, recreational users won’t have a legal way to buy cannabis. This is a boon to black market growers and dealers, but won’t do much for the state economy. Considering that other state legalization movements have used tax revenue as a carrot to sway reluctant voters, it’s an interesting omission.

The failure to address retail cannabis wasn’t an oversight, however. In 2017, Republican Governor Phil Scott vetoed a more comprehensive bill that had passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, which are both controlled by Democrats. In explanation, Scott said his veto was based on “reservations about a commercial system which depends on profit motive and market-driven demand for its growth.”

Pro-cannabis legislators regrouped and hashed out a new law that addressed some of Scott’s concerns, including the issue of retail sales. Scott reluctantly signed it into law in January 2018.

Despite the new law’s omissions, the Vermont legislature made history. “This is a thoughtful, incremental approach to marijuana legalization,” said House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski. “We’re proud to be the first state in the nation to pass marijuana legalization without the pressure of a public referendum.”

The approach may be incremental, but the wheels are still turning. The Vermont Marijuana Commission, which includes the state’s Secretary of Agriculture and the Attorney General, is currently evaluating the outcomes of legalization in other states, and investigating the potential for taxation and regulation of retail cannabis sales. In the meantime, Vermont stoners are looking forward to July 1.

The response in the grow community tends toward the positive. Because the current law doesn’t change the existing medical system or make any provisions for commercial growing, it hasn’t caused the usual fretting from medical and black market growers. In an old church turned garden supply store in Jericho, “Reverend” Rick Middlebrook, puts it simply: “It’s good for everybody in general.”

Rick, the owner of GTG Hydroponics has been an educational force in the industry for decades, and is happy to see the state moving in a progressive direction. He thinks that the next step should be a more comprehensive plan, including regulation and taxation of commercial cultivation and retail. He says, “We’re hoping they’ll do the right thing and get it done.”

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