What legalizing retail marijuana sales will look like

marijuana buds
A jar of marijuana buds on display at a shop in Long Beach, California. Photo by Dank Depot/Flickr

On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Scott decided to let a bill establishing a marijuana marketplace become law, making Vermont the 11th state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana sales. 

Over the next few years, state officials will stand up a regulated statewide market for marijuana and issue licenses to marijuana cultivators, product manufacturers, testing labs and dispensaries. 

Recreational marijuana dispensaries could open as soon as October 2022.

And the state’s existing medical dispensaries can receive licenses to sell their products to the public starting in May 2022.

Here's what the rollout of the new cannabis marketplace will look like. 

Forming the Cannabis Control Board 

The Cannabis Control Board is the new three-member body that will regulate Vermont's cannabis industry. 

The governor will appoint the board in consultation with a Cannabis Control Board Nominating Committee composed of members of the governor's administration, three members of the Vermont House and two Vermont state senators. 

Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott let S.54 go into law without his signature. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The board is expected to be in place by January 2021. But Scott said Wednesday he thinks the law's timeline for setting up the panel is “too aggressive and may need to be extended.”

Once appointed, the control board will have authority over licensing, regulation and enforcement of Vermont's nascent cannabis industry. In April, it will also make recommendations to the Vermont Legislature about additional policy changes and resources the state needs to have in place before the market opens up. 

These will include recommended policies around cannabis-related advertising, land use and efficiency requirements for cannabis businesses.   

In his letter on Wednesday, the governor asked lawmakers to make several changes before dispensaries start setting up shop in Vermont. 

Scott wants the Legislature to pass policies to improve racial equity in the marijuana industry. He wants legislators to ban the sale of marijuana vaping products, which currently would be allowed. And he wants them to prohibit businesses from advertising marijuana products in a way that would appeal to children. 

In June 2021, the board will begin the rulemaking process — writing the regulations that will govern cannabis establishments. 

The Champlain Valley Dispensary in Milton. Photo by Kit Norton/VTDigger

Medical marijuana dispensaries get a 'head start'

Vermont has five medical marijuana dispensaries, and the new law gives these companies a head start. They can apply for licenses and sell products to the public about five months earlier than the new retail sales companies. 

Medical dispensaries could start selling marijuana to people without prescriptions as soon as May 2022. 

Scott criticized the marijuana legislation for giving medical dispensaries “an unfair head start on market access.” He said this gives the existing dispensaries an unfair advantage over women-owned and minority-owned business applicants and other small growers and entrepreneurs trying to break into the industry. 

Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, who helped craft the legislation in the House, said medical dispensaries will be limited to one retail location each. 

Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, explains portions of a cannabis tax and regulation bill in February. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Allowing the dispensaries to open earlier will give small, local marijuana growers a leg up. 

"At the same time that the medical dispensaries are getting a head start, so are small cultivators who can sell to the medical dispensaries to meet the increased demand," Gannon said. 

The control board can begin issuing licenses to marijuana cultivators as soon as July 2022. 

Retail stores can open as soon as October 2022

The Cannabis Control Board can begin issuing licenses to marijuana product manufacturers and wholesalers in August 2022. 

The next month, retail stores will be able to receive licenses and open as well. 

However, the operations are subject to town approval. Some towns, including Clarendon, have already voted to ban both medical and recreational dispensaries. Newport and Thetford approved bans on dispensaries last year. However, Thetford overturned its marijuana ordinance in February. 

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, the minority leader in the Senate, said the fact that towns must "opt-in" before dispensaries can open means it could take up to three years before cannabis retailers operate in the state.

Benning opposed the “opt-in” provision during legislative negotiations. 

"Until we get towns that are actually opting in — and that process will take time — I don't see anything happening in the immediate future. I think it's going to be a lot of hurdles between now and the date you see the first door open someplace," Benning said. 

When dispensaries open, marijuana will be taxed at a combined 20% tax rate — a 14% excise tax and a 6% sales tax. 

According to the latest estimates from Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office, the new marijuana marketplace is expected to bring in nearly $20 million in state revenue per year, three years after it takes hold. 

The state would direct 30% of excise tax revenue from pot sales toward drug use prevention and education initiatives, and use part of the sales tax revenue to fund a universal after-school program Scott pitched earlier this year.

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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: [email protected]

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