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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  • Randy Jorgensen

    “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.”

    At some point Pot will most likely become legal at a federal level. It’s the way the country is moving.

    That said, if you think Big Tobacco is going to let the opportunity of billions in revenue to pass them by, well I have a bridge to sell you….

    • Rodney Harris

      You’re absosultely right, Randy.

      The end of alcohol prohibition allowed a few large companies to dominate the industry because home brewing was illegal. No one could develop brewing expertise legally without working for one of these large companies.

      Allowing home brewing in Vermont allowed our microbreweries to begin. We need to consider these lessons with marijuana legalization. Overly restrictive laws will allow only a few large companies to dominate the new industry.

  • Jim Brochhausen

    Ironically, just as marijuana is approaching legalization, anti-GM initiatives give a weapon to drug enforcement agents who could use GM bans to justify raids against marijuana cultivators–even small growers within the “medical marijuana” limits. What protesters have missed is that today’s potent varieties of marijuana were developed by genetic modification. The University of Central Florida even has a pending US Patent for a cannabis sativa genetic modification technique.

    Monsanto, the multi-billion agribusiness giant, has announced on April 9th, 2015 that it has patented their first genetically modified strain of marijuana.

    The news that has been welcomed by scientists and leaders of the agriculture business alike as a move forward towards the industrial use of marijuana and hemp products could bring a major shift towards marijuana policies in the U.S.A. and ultimately, to the world.

    I wonder how the VT labeling laws will work with weed?

  • Mark Keefe

    “the Vermont Way….small, local, controlled”. The solution; make it legal for individuals to grow their own (up to X-number of plants). Grow it in your garden, living room, barn, or whatever works for you. You could share a smoke with your friends – sale would still be illegal. Same rules apply for minors as with alcohol.
    It would take a significant market share out of illegal sales, not require any additional state monies, and reduce prescription costs for many. Seems like a logical next step, following dispensaries and the decriminalization for possession.
    That to me would be the Vermont Way…small, local, and controlled.

    • Mark K. above has it right in my opinion.

      Some folks, such as those headlined in this article, are looking at a way to turn a now illegal plant into an industry. Others, such as myself, see ending the cannabis prohibition as a way to get out from under the half century old drug war fueled police state.

      Personally I don’t care if one never has the ability to make a penny from growing marijuana for the high, and I don’t care if the government ever makes a penny in taxes off the same.

    • “the Vermont Way….small, local, controlled”. The solution; make it legal for individuals to grow their own (up to X-number of plants). Grow it in your garden, living room, barn, or whatever works for you. You could share a smoke with your friends – sale would still be illegal. Same rules apply for minors as with alcohol.”

      Yes, it would be the logical next step…unfortunately the so-called “the war on drugs” concerning cannabis has never been logical.

  • Ed Letourneau

    I think we should register those who need drugs like this — and access them extra taxes to pay for their habits.

    • Michael Badamo

      Maybe we should make them wear six pointed yellow stars too, Ed.

    • Bill Johnson

      The number of people who are using weed as a painkiller – for arthritis, chronic back pain, leg pain – who’ve been on prescription painkillers and are now realizing improved relief and less side effects is staggering. The number of people who are successfully combating debilitating side effects from chemo is also stunning. You may well want the choice available to you someday Ed, and by all indications we haven’t even scratched the surface to fully understand the medicinal benefits /because we haven’t been allowed to/ due to bad policy and a failed prohibition – and we’ve (you’ve) gotten so used to it, you think you’ve made an insightful comment. Should we register people who take Advil? Should we register people who have a glass of wine a day?

  • Carl Marcinkowski

    ” What protesters have missed is that today’s potent varieties of marijuana were developed by genetic modification. ”

    That depends on how one defines generic modification. Most domestic growers do not genetically modify the plant to produce high quality. Nor does their grow methods include gyphosate or other potentially dangerous chemicals (cartel clandestine growers excluded). Neither do the seed producers in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Canada and US where most of the strains are developed. Of course Monsanto, Phillip Morris and other conglomerates have their vision of the new industry. But that vision is not shared with the people presently in the industry. It seems that your comment is more about your aversion to GMO labeling than it is to the subject of cannabis legalization, Jim.

  • doug mcsweeney

    As a few commenters above have mentioned – the Vermont way is to let me and everyone else grow up to 3-4 plants, next to my tomatoes and that would solve it.

    Now on the other side, how about we start growing hemp for all it’s uses. We can keep our pretty farms and cut down on the amount of dairy cows and the pollution it causes. We have to use some of our farm land and the iconic Vermont view in different ways and hemp could be a large part of that.