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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Springfield Selectboard fields questions on retail cannabis

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SPRINGFIELD, Vt. —The Springfield Selectboard sponsored an informational meeting over legal parameters should the town vote to accept retail cannabis operations that culminated very little participation from residents but fielded a wealth of questions from local officials.

Springfield Selectboard Chair Walter Martone opened the Monday, Jan. 31, meeting stating the guidelines for the discussion and introducing fellow participants, including state Rep. Kristi Morris, George McNaughton, Co-Chair Michael Martin, Mount Ascutney Regional Commission (MARC) Planner Rachel Scudder, MARC Executive Director Jason Rasmussen, Springfield School Board member and selectboard Steve Karaffa, and MARC Senior Planner Alison Hopkins. Also in attendance were selectboard member Everette Hammond, Town Manager Jeff Mobus, The Collaborative Executive Director Maryann Morris, and Attorney David Silberman, a drug policy reform advocate currently serving as high bailiff of Addison County.

Martone clarified that the meeting was regarding a warrant on the ballot, specifically over whether the town should authorize cannabis retailers pursuant to Vermont statute.

“We do not have to discuss whether cannabis should be legal because cannabis is already legal throughout the state,” Martone said. “None of the resource people or selectboard members are here to convince people that something is better or worse. We are here to give information and answer questions.”

The chair continued to emphasize the intent of the informational meeting.

“This is not a place where people are going to be politicizing your vote to go one way or another,” he said. “It’s just about giving information.”

Martone noted that other nearby municipalities had either approved retail cannabis licensing or were in the process of deciding by vote in March.

“Neighboring towns that are in process are Hartland, Putney, Rockingham, Woodstock, and the newest is Chester and that got put on their ballot by referendum,” Martone said. “Other towns who have approved it are Londonderry and Windsor, although there are a lot of others who have approved it throughout the state of Vermont.”

Rachel Scudder opened with a presentation of Vermont’s progress with monitoring and issuing retail cannabis licensing, which offered a regional look at cannabis licensing as well as explained Act 164 Vermont cannabis legislation as it relates to Springfield.

“The presentation will go over the background, cannabis highlights, and local action and steps the town can take. Most rules will be adopted in the spring and the Cannabis Control Board plans to start issuing licenses,” Scudder said. “This presentation is about the Cannabis Control Board’s work on equitable and effective administering the laws to enable access of cannabis to adults in Vermont. [The Cannabis Control Board] makes these rules and enforces these rules and has taken over the medical cannabis registry.”

Scudder noted that the Cannabis Control Board also oversees small cultivators, product testing, wholesalers, and integrated licenses.

Scudder went over highlights of the Act 164 presentation listing retail safety information, identifying overconsumption, training for employees and packaging which is not to be appealing to anyone under the age of the legal consumption age of 21. She also said all packaging must be child proof and requires child proof warnings.

“Only adults of the age of 21 and over will be allowed sale or employment in cannabis establishments,” she said.

Scudder discussed the current prohibited behavior in relation to cannabis consumption.

“The sale of non-flavored baking products is permitted at this time. Although the current ban on the consumption of cannabis in public remains,” Scudder said, “Medical cannabis will operate under a different set of rules.”

The cannabis retail taxing issue was also clarified by Scudder.

“There will be a 6 percent sales tax in addition to the 14 percent sales tax on cannabis right now,” Scudder said. “This does not go directly to the municipalities. Although the [Cannabis Control Board] has recommended this, no decision has been made unless they have a local option tax.”

The presentation also defined a framework for municipalities who are considering retail cannabis operations within town limits.

“Municipalities must vote to opt in or out to allow adult use retail either at an annual or special meeting,” Scudder said. “Municipalities cannot prohibit it through an ordinance or a bylaw.”

This included an outline of safeguards municipalities that opt into retail cannabis sales can create to monitor retail cannabis merchants, testing facilities, and growing operations, including the formation of a local board.

“Municipalities considering voting to opt in can create a local cannabis commission in order to develop additional limited regulation and requirements,” Scudder said. “A local Cannabis Control Commision can issue local licensing for all cannabis establishments.”

Scudder said the entity would function in similar fashion to the liquor control board.

“A retailer would have to seek local licensing before they seek licensing through [Vermont State] Cannabis Control Board,” she said.

The local Cannabis Control Commision can regulate only land use including zoning, signage and nuisance regulations.

“Without a local cannabis control commision a municipality may still regulate in the same way they regulate other retail businesses through zoning, signage and nuisance regulation,” Shudder said.

The Vermont State Cannabis Control Board, according to Scudder, functions as an overseer to local Cannabis Control Commision boards.

The timeline that has been set up by the Cannabis Control Board for retail cannabis sales is a four-part timeline beginning in April.

“The Cannabis Control Board shall be accepting applications on or before April 1 for integrated licenses, small cultivation licenses, and testing laboratory licenses via the information Act 164 regulation of cannabis,” Scudder said. “On or before May 1, the Cannabis Control Board shall be issuing integrated licenses, small cultivator licenses and testing laboratory licenses.”

The next steps, involving the retail sale of cannabis, would begin in the fall of 2022, according to Scudder.

“On or before Sept. 1, the Cannabis Control Board shall begin issuing licenses for retailers,” Scudder said. “This application period shall be open for for 30 days and may be reopened at the discretion of the Cannabis Control Board at any time.”

The final part of the Cannabis Control Board timeline for retail sales begins during the beginning of the cannabis harvest season.

“On or before Oct. 1, the Cannabis Control Board shall be issuing licenses for retailers,” she said. “The sale of cannabis may begin immediately upon issuing of a retail license.”

Presently, the Cannabis Control Board is conducting and recommending community research, to have a public hearing.

“The Cannabis Control Board will collaborate with public health experts, law enforcement, public health officials and emergency services to explore state, local education and policies,” Scudder said, “Potential actions are to promote youth prevention under 24 4414 V.S.A [zoning] and 24 V.S.A 2291 [public nuisance].”

Scudder’s presentation also outlined local policy for opt-in communities.

“Policies to consider are zoning buffers around family oriented or recovery oriented establishments,” Scudder said. “Having a sign ordinance with minimized signage for cannabis products similar to tobacco signage and the creation of a local health and wellness committee.”

According to Scudder, the neighboring town action is happening in Woodstock as the voters have chosen to opt in. Windsor is now establishing a local research group.

“These towns are setting up to explore issues such as safety, health schools, legislation and town planning,”

At the end of the presentation, Scudder urged all interested individuals with questions to visit the Cannabis Control Board website and supplied contact information for herself and MARC Senior Planner Alison Hopkins.

In the next part of the presentation, Martone handed the floor over to two officials who are active in the regulation and safety of communities who have opted in to retail cannabis sales: Marriane Morris and Dave Silberman.

A resident by the name “Andy G.” raised her hand via Zoom and asked about the progress of the Cannabis Control Board’s position on cannabis taxation.

“In the Oct. 15 report of the Vermont Cannabis Control Board to the legislature there was a recommendation that 1 to 2 percent of that 14-percent excise tax actually stay in the municipalities where the retail sales occurred. So isn’t that a method for the town to earn fees without having to do the 1 percent optional tax or can you tell of the status of it?”

Martone clarified: “Springfield does not have a local option tax,” he said. “You would have had to opt in for that local excise tax so that goes hand in hand. But I believe the Cannabis Control Board is discussing towns that opt in providing additional funding. But that is not a decided point right now.”

“The town can only opt in with respect to retail. I just want the voters to be very clear that the town cannot opt in or out for growers or manufacturers or people that make edibles, testing labs, or wholesalers. Those licensees are allowed in every town. With respect to local taxes, yes, the Oct. 15 report the Cannabis Control Board recommended the legislature adopt an additional revenue stream for municipalities,” Silberman said. “This has been a really hot topic — a surprisingly politically hot topic — in the legislature. When the Senate first passed what became Act 164 the Senate had a 2-percent revenue share with towns but the House did not see fit to agree with that and took it out. That’s sort of been a long standing House-Senate divide with local taxes and it continues to be debated in the legislature today.”

Silberman continued clarifying the contention in the House and Senate regarding the revenue piece of Act 164.

“So there’s a bill that was introduced into the Senate by Senator White of Windham County and she’s proposing that 4 percent of excise tax goes to municipalities. To me that sounds like a negotiating position to try to get back down to 2 percent because the House is still at zero,” Silberman said. “We will see how that shakes out. Politics is always interesting to watch that sausage making process happen. But I wouldn’t bank on that money quite yet. I would say it’s important to note where that 20-percent sales tax is going.”

Silberman gave a breakdown of what the taxation would look like impacting locally.

“Six percent sales tax is going to the education fund and that is specifically reserved for a yet to be created after school care program. A lot of people in the prevention program have been asking for that for a really long time related to cannabis legalization. The idea there is to provide a wide range of activities for kids between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. after school before the parents get home. So those funds are going to go to that and it’s probably going to look like block grants for school districts but we don’t know yet,” he said. “The 14-percent excise tax — 30 percent of that, or up to $10 million per year — is earmarked for what the legislature has called ‘prevention.’ Basically, it is a pot of money that has yet to be allocated. The legislature has not determined how that money is going to be used but they will be looking to the Department of Health to determine how that money is going to be used.”

Springfield Town Manager Jeff Mobus asked about cannabis purchasing limits, specifically if there is a limit to how much can be purchased at a time.

Silberman said the one-ounce possession rule applies to purchasing retail cannabis.

“You have a limit to purchasing one ounce at a time,” he said. “It is legal and there is no penalty for possessing one ounce. The second ounce up to two ounces is a civil offense.”

Martone asked about the cannabis equity funds to be made available to people who have faced past cannabis related penalties and prison time.

“I have been reading, but not fully understanding, provisions about giving preferential treatment to people who have been impacted by the previous [prohibition laws] conviction and giving preferential treatment to businesses and not allowing conglomerates. I heard it all kind of wrapped up together but I never fully understood it. So are there going to be limits to who can even apply for these licenses to incentivize or encourage these groups to apply for licenses?”

Morris explained the anti conglomerate piece on a local level while Silberman broke down the tangle between the legislation between anti-conglomerates and the social equity piece of Act 164.

“They are still trying to work out some of those equity pieces for those who have been unduly affected by the past cannabis laws and how to apply for these licenses. But in your town that local board will get to decide who gets those licenses and who doesn’t,” Morris said. “In other towns — I live and work in Londonderry — a really big priority has been that it would be invested locally and not have larger organizations coming in. So it is one of those clarifying points that a local board can help your town understand. I’m here to help you understand the health impacts but I’m also here to help you understand who you want to have those licenses.”

Silberman elaborated that Vermont has positioned itself to keep the retail, growing, and manufacturing of cannabis on the local and small business level as well as recognizing the unfair arrests related to cannabis conviction during prohibition.

“What we have seen in other states and in Canada is a real race to consolidate and we don’t want to see that in Vermont so we made that illegal,” Silberman said. “With respect to the social equity programs and the board, when we were talking in the legislature and trying to get this in the House it became very clear to us there is a very disturbing history with drug enforcement in this country — not just cannabis but all drugs. The drug laws are just not enforced against white people in the way they are enforced against Black people.”

The high bailiff highlighted additional racial disparities in Vermont that the state government has known about for quite some time but has found difficult to address.

“We see it across the nation but we see it in Vermont as well. We just got a report from the council of state governments in the legislature that today in Vermont Black people are prosecuted at a rate 14 times higher than white people for drug possession and that’s quite disturbing,” he said. “We’ve known for a while that Black people get pulled over at four times the rate of white people and once they are pulled over are arrested at three times the rate of white drivers who have been pulled over. We know that Black people are highly disproportionately represented in our prisons. We have one of the worst [racial disparities] in the country in our prison population.”

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