Business & Economy

Vermont entrepreneurs want to apply ‘our way’ to the ‘high’ way

Gardener’s Supply Co. founder Will Raap is silhouetted by a Vermont Cannabis Collaborative slide show in Brattleboro on Monday promoting state legalization of marijuana. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/for VTDigger
Gardener’s Supply Company founder Will Raap is silhouetted by a Vermont Cannabis Collaborative slide show in Brattleboro on Monday promoting state legalization of marijuana. Photo by Kevin O’Connor for VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — Will Raap recalls one of the first customers at his three-decade-old Gardener’s Supply Company — a shopper with “a wallet full of dollar bills” seeking indoor lights, organic soil and total anonymity.

“At some level, my business has always been in the legal side of selling products so people can grow their own … whatever,” he says. “We always knew there was a business opportunity there.”

But cultivating prohibited plants such as marijuana can be challenging. That’s why Raap and six other entrepreneurs have formed the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative, which kicked off the first of a series of statewide meetings this week in hopes of spurring the 2016 Legislature to legalize the drug.

Vermont approved medical marijuana use for patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS in 2004, authorized dispensaries in 2011, and decriminalized personal possession of up to an ounce in 2013.

“I think the momentum is growing,” Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said at the beginning of Monday night’s meeting in Brattleboro. “My concern is that it happen the Vermont way. For many of us, that means keeping it small, local and controlled.”

The Senate Government Operations Committee that White chairs hopes to consider a bill this winter while Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has expressed openness to such efforts, is still in office. As a result, she listened attentively as collaborative members addressed a Windham County crowd of more than 50 people at the downtown River Garden.

“If we don’t do it in 2016, we will miss a big opportunity,” Raap said. “I see it as the next interesting industry for Vermont. It’s time to get creative about how we do this.”

Raap sits on the seven-person collaborative alongside Coffee Enterprises president Daniel Cox, Solidarity of Unbridled Labour principal Michael Jager, Highland Sugarworks founder Judy MacIsaac Robertson, former Chittenden County state senator Hinda Miller, Magic Hat Brewing Co. founder Alan Newman and Burlington professor Rob Williams.

“The reality of cannabis becoming legalized in Vermont is going to happen,” Miller said. “We see it as a wonderful job creator and a way to recruit and retain our youth.”

The group’s website, vtcannabiscollaborative.org, lists other advantages, including increased tax revenues (“Vermont might, in theory, be able to generate $20 million to $75 million annually,” which is according to a Rand Drug Policy Research Center report) and tourism.

Raap, citing the state’s cheese and craft beers, believes “we can do high-quality artisanal stuff very well.” But he knows skiers who are traveling to Colorado, one of four states (along with Alaska, Oregon and Washington) and the District of Columbia to have legalized marijuana.

“We want to be able to compete,” Raap said. “How do we do that in such a way we are giving people a high-quality experience? The idea is just like with local food and renewable energy and green products — we can create something special. We can become the East Coast center of excellence for this industry.”

The audience, many wearing T-shirts with marijuana designs, nevertheless had questions, even though White explained the meeting wasn’t scheduled to take testimony for or against a bill.

The first woman to raise her hand asked about young people.

“There are some health outcomes that we don’t want,” she said.

Collaborative members replied that one of their summer study groups is exploring youth education and prevention.

“We recognize there are real safety issues,” Raap said.

Several speakers who identified themselves as “medical patients” expressed frustration with the way they have to covertly grow marijuana. Some became so emotional that they yelled opposition to ideas the collaborative wasn’t advancing.

“We’re going to scream about it even if you say that’s not what’s going to happen,” one man said. “Once you legalize it, I could get pushed out of something I’m passionate about.”

White tried to calm the crowd.

“I think we’re creating a tension that isn’t real,” she said.

But the state senator foresaw some upcoming struggles. Her Windham County Senate colleague, Becca Balint, said before she votes for any measure, “the prevention community needs to get behind it.”

Said White: “We have to craft a bill that meets the needs of people who are currently growing or using but will also pass the Senate and the House.”

The collaborative will soon publicize its next public meetings, expected in Manchester and St. Johnsbury in August.

“If people invite us,” Miller said, “we want to come.”

Kevin O’Connor, a former staffer of the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, is a Brattleboro-based writer. Email: [email protected] 

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