Commentary

Howard Fairman: Keep marijuana business local

Editor’s note: This commentary is by native Vermonter Howard Fairman of Putney. It combines and updates his in-person testimony to the Vermont Senate committees on Government Operations (Nov. 3, 2015) and Judiciary (Jan. 13, 2016).

Call it legalization or call it regulation, recreational marijuana legally sold here must be grown, processed and distributed in Vermont.

As the RAND Corp. Drug Policy Research Center report, commissioned by our legislators, warns us:

“Vermont’s situation differs in important ways from that of other states in different settings. Colorado did not have to worry too much about attracting large numbers of near neighbors; it is relatively isolated, at least from major U.S. cities.

“Vermont, on the other hand, has 40 times the number of its own marijuana users living within 200 miles of its borders. This fact should feature prominently in discussions about the future of marijuana policy in Vermont.” (emphasis added). (p. 156)

“An influx of tourists can be expected immediately after stores open.” (p. 109).

Some 3.2 million nonresident users living conveniently within 200 miles in states where marijuana remains illegal added to 80,000 resident users is five marijuana users per Vermonter (pp. 156, 18; U.S. Census Bureau).

Tourists, especially families, avoiding legalized recreational marijuana will go elsewhere.

Like voters elsewhere, Vermonters should decide by Australian ballot whether to legalize recreational marijuana for residents or for nonresidents and give dibs on marijuana agriculture to conventional Vermont farmers.

 

This is an outsize impact: 87 percent of Vermonters who do not use marijuana will live with the consequences of instant regional demand for Vermont’s most lucrative ever field and greenhouse crop and agricultural product.

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If insufficient legal Vermont marijuana is available after legalization, our legislators and governor will have created a legal market for imported illegal marijuana.

State-by-state, legalizing recreational marijuana is creating a national marijuana industry like the tobacco industry where, at least initially, there may be a niche market for premium Vermont marijuana.

Seizing their opportunity for riches, marijuana entrepreneurs and their financiers will outbid thrifty, conventional Vermont farmers to lease or buy agricultural land and buildings for their very valuable crop that must be grown, processed and sold here.

Dibs on diversifying to individually grow and cooperatively process and wholesale premium Vermont marijuana and marijuana products would protect and reward experienced Vermont farmers working so long and hard to preserve our cherished rural Vermont and their livelihoods.

They could employ former clandestine marijuana growers and processors, who lack necessary knowledge and experience of professional agriculture, legal and regulatory compliance, environmental stewardship and ethical marketing.

Should we subsidize marijuana farming and processing with agricultural-assistance programs and current-use taxation of agricultural land and buildings? How about the right to farm?

The New York Times and Washington Post have reported that legalizing marijuana cuts foreign marijuana farmers’ incomes, so they naturally switch to growing opium poppies for more, cheaper heroin.

“Legalization’s indirect effects via changes in the use of other substances could outweigh the importance of the marijuana-related outcomes themselves” (RAND, p. 155).

Like voters elsewhere, Vermonters should decide by Australian ballot whether to legalize recreational marijuana for residents or for nonresidents and give dibs on marijuana agriculture to conventional Vermont farmers.

There is a precedent: In 1936, the governor and a majority of legislators endorsed the ridgeline Green Mountain Parkway, but allowed town meeting voters to decide whether it should change Vermont.

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