Efforts to create a taxed and regulated marijuana market in Vermont advanced Thursday after the state Senate approved a bill to allow legal cannabis sales.
The legislation was approved by a roll call vote of 23 to 5—a veto-proof margin. After an additional procedural vote in the Senate, likely on Friday, the proposal will head to the House of Representatives.
If enacted into law, S. 54 would establish the Cannabis Control Board as the state’s regulatory body for a legal marijuana market. Five types of licenses for various cannabis businesses would be available, and cannabis sales would be taxed with an excise tax of 16 percent, plus a two percent local option tax.
The bill also includes measures to encourage women and communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition and the war on drugs to join the newly legal market.
“Today’s strong, tri-partisan vote sends a clear message that Vermonters of all political stripes are ready to regulate commercial cultivation and sale of already-legal cannabis,” Dave Silberman, a pro-bono drug reform advocate said in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “By combining a strong regulatory apparatus with our existing homegrow law, S.54 would take power and profits away from illicit dealers and put them in the hands of consumers and law-abiding entrepreneurs.”
The proposal entered the legislative session with strong support in the Senate, with 15 senators—fully half the chamber—signed on as cosponsors.
During a floor debate before the vote, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears (D) contextualized the growing embrace of marijuana reform around the region. Maine and Massachusetts have enacted legalization, while Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island are considering doing so. Canada implemented marijuana legalization across all provinces and territories this past fall.
“This is no longer where we would be the only ones in the northeast, but one of many,” he said.
Since the bill’s introduction, committees have made amendments to the proposal, including adjusting the rate at which marijuana would taxed and the number of people comprising the regulatory board. The Senate Committee on Judiciary opted to remove language that would have allowed existing medical cannabis dispensaries exclusive rights to sell marijuana products for a year after the new law took effect.
Sen. Ann Cummings (D), who chairs the Finance Committee, talked about looking at other states’ plans to tax and regulate marijuana sales for guidance. “Their structures are diverse as anything you’ve seen. There’s nothing that says this is the best way to tax and regulate,” she said. “This is a brave new world and we’re trying to feel our way forward.”
“The idea was to keep taxes low to encourage migration from the illegal market,” she said of the proposed 16 percent tax for retail sales. “There is no meals tax on edibles and no taxes are applied until the consumer buys the product.”
Sen. Joe Benning (R) said that he traveled to Alaska and Colorado to study their legal marijuana sales systems and found that “neither state has fallen off the planet.”
While out of the Senate’s hands, the bill’s enactment into law is not yet secured. It must still pass through the larger House of Representatives, which has failed in the past to approve tax and regulate bills, though it did vote last year to approve the state’s current noncommercial legalization law that allows low-level possession and home cultivation.
While Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe (D) has fast-tracked efforts to create a legal market, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) has said she isn’t convinced the state is ready to tax and regulate marijuana sales. “You know, I’m honestly really torn on it,” she told Vermont Public Radio last month.
And Gov. Phil Scott (R), who approved the state’s current legal-possession law, has said he would consider signing commercial legalization only if funds were made available for education and prevention measures and roadside tests to detect impaired driving.
A supermajority of House Democrats and Progressives could join the Senate in overriding a potential veto with support of 100 of 150 seats, but cannabis reform support does not split evenly along party lines.
If approved, the bill would go into effect on July 1 of this year, when the board would be formed. Licenses will be given to retailers on or before April 1, 2021.
“Cannabis is legal for adults in Vermont, and it’s time for it to be treated like other products that are legal for adults,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “That means regulating its production and sale to address public health and safety concerns and keep it out of the hands of minors. While some adults would prefer to grow their own cannabis, many would prefer to access it safely and legally from licensed stores. They should have the choice, and that is what this bill will provide.”
Other marijuana-related legislation remains active in Vermont.
A similar bill, H. 196, which sits in the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, has been backed by more than a third of the chamber’s members. Another bill, S. 117, would scrap the specified list of conditions for which doctors can recommend medical cannabis as well as a requirement that patients must have an existing relationship with their doctor before they can get such recommendations.
The Vermont Senate vote is the latest in a string of legislative wins for marijuana reformers around the country this week.