- File: Colin Flanders
- Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) urging support for S.54 during a press conference last month
Vermont House lawmakers on Wednesday voted 90 to 54 in favor of a bill that would create a legal retail cannabis market.
S.54, which passed the Senate last year, will come up for a formal third reading Thursday before heading to a conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers will reconcile differences between their two versions. Those include varying tax structures, competing philosophies on local control and different approaches to highway safety. The bill will then head back for another vote in both chambers.
Vermont legislators legalized the possession and cultivation of limited amounts of weed in 2018, but not sales. Supporters of S.54 say that creating a regulatory framework will better protect consumers while bringing in tax revenue.
“What we have now in place isn’t working, and this bill is an important step forward for our state,” said House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), who noted most of her constituents support the measure.
Other lawmakers expressed fear about the impact of cannabis on developing brains, and argued that setting up a legal market would further encourage youth use.
“This drug has long-term effects on our young people,” said Rep. Vicki Strong (R-Albany), who voted against the bill. “We’re lowering the bar to the perceptions of these young people.”
Lawmakers spent much of Wednesday afternoon inquiring about various provisions of the 90-plus-page bill. They also codified decisions made over the last several weeks, approving amendments to establish a combined 20 percent tax rate and steer money toward prevention efforts and afterschool programs.
The final vote followed mostly partly lines, with a handful of exceptions. Among those in favor were some Republican lawmakers who have opposed previous legalization efforts — including the 2018 law.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, believe that the current bill would fail to give municipalities enough incentive to join the market, particularly after lawmakers decided to remove a 2 percent local option tax. Under the House version, municipalities would need to hold a vote before they could host retail establishments.
Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington), who sits on her local selectboard, questioned why her town would feel compelled to opt in when they won’t receive a tax benefit.
“The black market, the unsafe market, will continue to flourish,” said Browning, who voted against the bill.
S.54 would establish a Cannabis Control Board that would be responsible for regulation and licensing of all stages of the supply chain for legal weed. The bill calls on the board to prioritize Vermont businesses owned by women and minorities as it considers license applications.
Under the House version, the state’s existing medical dispensaries would be able to apply to the board for lab and cultivation licenses in January 2022. The board would then phase in licenses for processing facilities, wholesalers and retailers over the following months.
Wednesday’s vote marked a monumental moment for some cannabis advocates, who have watched the Senate pass similar bills before only to see them die in the House. But while the bill received tripartisan support, it did not reach the two-thirds threshold that would be needed to override a veto from Gov. Phil Scott.
Scott has said he’s willing to consider the legislation as long as it includes funding for prevention efforts, a system that would make communities opt in to retail sales and a protocol for highway safety measures. The House version of the bill seeks to address each of those issues, but it falls short of Scott’s call for a warrantless roadside saliva test.