House and Senate reach deal to establish retail marijuana market

Sen. Dick Sears
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have reached a deal on legislation that would create a legal market for marijuana in Vermont. 

Legislators signed off on a compromise proposal late Tuesday evening, after they came to an agreement on how the state would establish an advertisement policy for marijuana businesses—the largest sticking point in final negotiations. 

The bill, S.54, which would allow marijuana dispensaries to open up as soon as May 1, 2022, still needs to be approved again by the House and Senate. 

But legislators are poised to send the bill to Gov. Phil Scott's desk next week, where it faces uncertainty. 

Under the legislation, marijuana sales would be taxed at a combined 20% tax rate including a 14% excise tax and a 6% sales tax. 

In recent weeks, the House and Senate have worked to reach consensus on a variety of provisions in the bill surrounding roadside safety, consumer protections, and taxes.

"Most people will be upset by some parts and most people will be happy with some parts," Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said of the bill Wednesday morning.

"But overall it's the result of compromise, and it's not perfect," said Sears, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

The last major disagreement between the two chambers centered on whether marijuana businesses should be able to advertise their products.

The House had wanted to ban cannabis advertising to help prevent exposing children to the drug. The version of the bill they passed in February prohibited nearly all forms of commercial advertisement for marijuana businesses.

But in recent days, the Senate had grown concerned about an outright advertising ban after the Attorney General's office weighed in and said it might be unconstitutional. 

In the end, the House and Senate agreed to let the Cannabis Control Board, the newly formed panel that would regulate the marijuana industry, recommend advertising restrictions in consultation with the Vermont Health Department and the Attorney General's office. The Legislature would have to approve those recommended restrictions next year before they could become law. 

The House and Senate also reached an agreement on how they would direct revenue from the cannabis market to municipalities. 

The Senate had preferred a proposal to send 2% of tax revenue from marijuana sales to towns that host cannabis businesses. 

The House, whose proposal ultimately made it into the legislation, favored giving towns money from marijuana licensing fees on cannabis businesses. 

Earlier this month, the Senate agreed to several House priorities including a measure that would allow police to use saliva tests to screen drivers for drug use and make it a requirement for towns to vote in favor of allowing dispensaries before they can set up shop.  

The bill would also set limits for THC levels in cannabis products. THC is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

"I'm proud that the House got so many of the consumer protection measures that we wanted, and the highway safety measures that we wanted, because those were very important to the House,"  said Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington. 

The House dropped a measure that would have given police the authority to pull drivers over if they suspect they aren’t wearing seat belts, which senators adamantly opposed.

The governor has said he could support a legal marijuana market in Vermont, but only if the state implements policies to bolster drug use prevention and roadside safety to go along with it.

The bill includes such measures, but it's unclear if they will be enough to satisfy Scott. 

Under the legislation, 30% of marijuana excise tax revenues would be used to fund substance misuse and prevention programs. The sales tax revenue would be used to fund a universal afterschool program he pitched earlier this year.

The governor has said that he wants the state to legalize saliva tests for police officers alongside a legal pot market. But he has said he wants police to be able to administer these tests without a warrant

The current legislation includes a warrant requirement for police to administer the tests. 

Sears said that the lawmakers have "tried to be cognizant of what the governor's positions have been and what the administration has asked for." 

"Will he sign it? I don't know," Sears added. "My guess is if he doesn't sign it that's the end of the bill for this year." 

Sears said he doesn't believe the House has the two-thirds majority support for the bill that would be needed to override Scott's veto pen. 

Earlier this year, the House passed the bill in a 90-54 vote. The chamber would need 100 votes to reverse a veto. 

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: xlanden@vtdigger.org

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