A coalition of Vermont civil rights and criminal justice reform groups is calling on the governor to sign bills to legalize marijuana sales and facilitate automatic expungements for prior cannabis convictions.
Gov. Phil Scott (R) has until Wednesday to act on the marijuana commerce legislation that’s now on his desk, otherwise it will become law without his signature. He’s signaled that he’s on the fence about what he’ll do after hearing criticism from certain racial justice groups; but now he’s getting the opposite advice from organizations like ACLU of Vermont.
In a statement released on Sunday, the coalition said the tax-and-regulate and expungement bills “will make huge strides towards addressing the racist legacy of cannabis prohibition and disparate enforcement of our current cannabis laws.”
Notably, the groups said they “share the concerns and goals” of other organizations that have argued the legislation doesn’t go far enough to address social equity, but they said they “disagree with the call to veto the bill and start over,” adding that doing so “would be a big setback for racial justice.”
“Instead of vetoing the bill, the Governor should sign S. 54 and demand prioritization of racial justice in all aspects of its implementation,” the statement says. “Overseeing the details of this program would be a tremendous way for the Governor to ensure that Vermont becomes a model for justice in the taxed and regulated sales of cannabis to adults.”
“Ongoing reform of cannabis policies is a justice imperative supported by an overwhelming number of Vermonters,” the statement, which was also signed by Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, Middlebury Showing Up for Racial Justice, Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative and Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, said. “We urge the Governor to ensure that progress is made.”
The governor’s stated concerns about racial justice inequities in the cannabis commerce bill is a new narrative that he hadn’t expressed until after it passed the legislature in its final form last month. Previously, his criticism centered on impaired driving, taxes and local control—all issues that lawmakers worked to address as they crafted the legislation and finalized it in a bicameral conference committee.
Advocates are skeptical about the new messaging development and question whether Scott is simply looking for a cop-out to justify vetoing the bill. He rejected an earlier version of a bill to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation on a noncommercial basis in 2018 before negotiating changes with lawmakers that made him comfortable with signing revised legislation.
In any case, the governor isn’t fabricating real opposition that exists from select racial equity groups which he said have approached him in recent weeks. The Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, Justice For All, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, Rural Vermont, Trace and the Vermont Growers Association have each put out statements urging a veto on the legislation.
Supporters, meanwhile, have made the case that the bill does contain provisions that prioritize women and minority participation in the regulated industry. And the companion expungement bill, which hasn’t yet been formally transmitted to his desk, would directly promote equity.
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D), who’s running against Scott for the governorship, stressed in a debate last week that while he agrees with the sentiment that more needs to be done to ensure racial justice, an imperfect bill can be improved upon, and the legislature has plenty of time to finesse the details before legal cannabis sales launch.
For what it’s worth, the governor said last month that he was impressed by the legislative process that the bill went through. But he’s remained noncommittal when asked what he plans to do with the measure, with days left to make a decision.
Under the cannabis commerce bill, a new Cannabis Control Commission would be responsible for issuing licenses for retailers, growers, manufacturers, wholesalers and labs. The body would also take over regulation of the state’s existing medical cannabis industry from the Department of Public Safety .
A 30 percent THC limit would be imposed on cannabis flower, while oils could contain up to 60 percent THC. Flavored vape cartridges would be banned.
Local jurisdictions would have to proactively opt in to allow marijuana businesses to operate in their area. Municipalities would also be able to establish their own regulations and municipal licensing requirements.
A timeline for the legislation states that it would formally take effect on October 1, 2020—but regulators would then have to make a series of determinations about rules and licensing before retail sales would launch. Dispensary licenses would have to be issued on or before October 1, 2022.
A fiscal analysis on the final bill projects that Vermont will generate between $13.3 million and $24.2 million in annual cannabis tax revenue by Fiscal Year 2025. Licensing fees will lead to additional funds for the state, but the regulatory board created by the legislation will set those levels at a later date. For now, the Joint Fiscal Office estimates the fees could lead to another $650,000 in revenue every year. Municipalities hosting marijuana businesses will also be able to levy additional local fees.
The expungements bill that is also on its way to Scott’s desk after clearing the legislature would make it so those with convictions for marijuana possession of up to two ounces, four mature plants and eight immature plants prior to January 2021 would have their records automatically cleared. Those who receive expungements would be notified by mail.
It’s not clear what will happen if Scott vetoes the legal cannabis sales bill. It passed the Senate with a veto-proof margin, but fell shy of that threshold in the House.
We urge Gov. Scott to sign the package of cannabis policy reform bills on his desk — S.234 and S. 54 — into law. Taken together, these bills will make huge strides towards addressing the racist legacy of cannabis prohibition and disparate enforcement of our current cannabis laws.
S. 234 would expunge the misdemeanor cannabis convictions of tens of thousands of Vermonters and free them from the devastating collateral consequences of those convictions in employment, housing, and social services.
S. 54 would create a system of taxed and regulated sales of cannabis that will promote the interests of individuals who have been disproportionately harmed by cannabis prohibition, create economic opportunity, and promote consumer safety.
We share the concerns and goals of advocates urging lawmakers to advance further racial justice initiatives when developing the tax and regulate system but disagree with the call to veto the bill and start over. That would be a big setback for racial justice. As former State Rep. Kiah Morris recently stated, “S. 54 is a bill that will change the national conversation around the legalization of cannabis and our entry into a regulated market. It is one of the most comprehensive and forward thinking attempts, addressing and repairing the historical harms of the war on drugs, and the devastating impacts on our nation.” We join Rep. Morris and Rights and Democracy in asking Gov. Scott to sign this bill into law, and, as the bill is implemented, continue to engage the communities most harmed by cannabis prohibition to ensure that the promises of racial justice are given full effect.
Instead of vetoing the bill, the Governor should sign S. 54 and demand prioritization of racial justice in all aspects of its implementation. S. 54 creates a Cannabis Control Board with members that the Governor appoints. That Board has to report back to and get legislative approval of many aspects of the tax and regulate system before it could be implemented. Among other racial justice provisions in S. 54, there is a specific mandate that requires the Board to work with multiple agencies under the Governor’s control to develop programs to provide economic opportunities to individuals and communities that have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition.
Ongoing reform of cannabis policies is a justice imperative supported by an overwhelming number of Vermonters. We urge the Governor to ensure that progress is made.
ACLU of Vermont
Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform
Middlebury Showing Up for Racial Justice
Women’s Justice and Freedom Initiative
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.