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Some black market cannabis growers are ready to move into Vermont's legal market

A man stands near a field of cannabis plants in St. Albans.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
Nathan Liberty, owner of Sweet Lou's Farm, stands among his more than 350 cannabis plants in St. Albans. Liberty has been growing illegally for more than 25 years and is now moving into the legal market.

People have been growing cannabis illegally here in Vermont for a very long time. And all of that skill and knowledge is being embraced while regulators continue to open up the fledgling legal retail market.

Back in 2006, the police showed up one day at Nick Mattei’s house in St. Johnsbury.

A neighbor called in a noise complaint, and when the police arrived they found three small cannabis plants growing in his closet.

“They came into my bedroom and I was arrested on the spot for felony cultivation,” Mattei explained one day recently. “Three plants in 2006 got you a felony charge. So that’s an experience that I would not wish upon anyone.”

Mattei, who was 23, spent three months in prison, and with a felony conviction he couldn’t possess a firearm or travel to Canada.

But he says it was a real drag being pegged as a drug dealer in the small town where he lived.

“At the time, being someone that was caught growing cannabis, you’re looked at as someone who is involved in drugs,” he said. “Even though, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be roped in with all those other drugs that are much more dangerous. But it was. And so that really added to the whole experience. You know, people look at you differently after that.”

Mattei was raised in a Northeast Kingdom family that put a lot of value into growing and preserving homegrown food. And he really liked growing — and smoking — cannabis.

It wasn’t too long after his arrest that he got back into cultivating. And over the past 15 years he’s learned a lot about growing really good weed while keeping a low profile.

"I’m proud of the work that we’ve done. We worked really hard to get here, and, you know, I’m excited and happy to be able to talk about it.” - Nick Mattei, co-owner of Forbin's Finest

Now as Vermont’s retail market opens up, Mattei says he’s looking forward to coming out from the shadows.

“Well I haven’t been able to talk about it because the only way that you could talk about it with other growers were in, you know, chat rooms, or online forums where you didn’t use your real name,” Mattei said. “You know, I’m proud of the work that we’ve done. We worked really hard to get here, and I’m excited and happy to be able to talk about it.”

Mattei has received his license. He is what folks in the cannabis industry are calling a “legacy grower,” which means he’s been breaking the law by growing and selling weed on the black market.

And it’s people like Mattei that Vermont now wants to come on board to establish and grow the new, legal recreational industry.

“Almost every other state that has legalized cannabis, essentially, decides to replace the legacy market with big business,” said James Pepper, chairman of the Cannabis Control Board, the regulatory body that’s setting up the new legal market.

“We’re taking a different approach in Vermont, and we’re really trying to shift the legacy market into a regulated space, so that it’s the very people that have been incarcerated or have been living under the threat of prosecution for decades that will benefit the most from this market.”

If the state is successful, it hopes small local growers — legacy and new — will create a buzz by building a craft cannabis industry in Vermont.

When the Cannabis Control Board was writing the new regulations, legacy growers were invited in to talk openly about their history.

And a lot of the license fees were written to encourage small growers to come on board.

Regulators hope that even though tourists can buy their bud at home, they’ll want to get their weed here, the way they drive up for maple syrup, cheese and beer.

A man stands in front of cannabis plants.
Christopher Chabod
/
In this photo from 2018 Christopher Chabot stands in a field of illegally grown cannabis in Hardwick.

Christopher Chabot says growers like himself are excited about moving into the legal market.

“For so long everyone was, ‘Oh, you dumb stoners.’ However, no one’s mentioning that anymore now that we 'dumb stoners' are looking at being the next wave of big business, or at least successful business in Vermont,” Chabot said.

Chabot grew up in the Upper Valley. He says he grew a little bit of pot there, and then moved up to Lamoille County, where he worked for other growers, and then started cultivating his own.

“There are a lot of folks who don’t have generational wealth in Vermont,” Chabot said. “Cannabis has been, for them, and for us, a means of accessing a higher standard of living than the normal restaurant jobs or whatever manufacturing jobs that people take around here.”

Chabot, who has applied for a permit, says he’s been pretty successful growing and selling weed illegally. But he’s willing to leave that all behind to support and grow Vermont’s new market.

And now he's moving into edibles — working with growers and manufacturers to come up with pot food and drinks that appeal to a wider audience. Even if he’s finding it much more complicated to learn about wastewater permits, fire inspections and insurance, as opposed to exchanging wads of cash for big bales of bud.

“You know, we’re super familiar with how to grow cannabis, but we don’t know anything about, you know, how to run a business in the legal way,” Cabot said. “A lot of people have been marginalized a lot of their life by being in the black market, and they’re having a really hard time negotiating these kind of hurdles.”

Nathan Liberty, of St. Albans, is another grower who’s looking forward to moving his business into the legal market.

“For so long everyone was, ‘Oh, you dumb stoners,’ however no one’s mentioning that anymore now that we dumb stoners are looking at being the next wave of big business, or at least successful business in Vermont." - Christopher Chabod, owner of Freedom Flower

“It was very nice to be able to support myself with what I cultivated. But I wasn’t someone to just sit and wrap it up and sell little by little. I would sell pretty much everything I had at once and be done with it. Really ‘cause I was just terrified of being caught," he said.

Liberty, 42, is calling himself a cannabis consultant.

He’s working with growers and entrepreneurs who want to invest in Vermont’s cannabis market to bring pot and edibles to the shelves.

Liberty believes that Vermont will be able to carve out a niche market by supporting and highlighting small growers who can produce something different what’s out there on the shelves in other states.

Liberty grew about 385 plants this year, which he says will be processed in a lab, and then sold, legally, as edibles in stores around Vermont.

“I’ve always wanted to believe we’d get here,” Liberty said. “Did I really ever think it would get to this point? I honestly don’t think I did. I think I would have maybe seen it in my children’s generation. And the fact that we’re here and we’re openly all talking about it, and we’re all embracing it is excellent. It’s progress. And that’s really what we’ve needed or a long time.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public's reporter for Southern Vermont & the Connecticut River Valley. He worked at the Brattleboro Reformer for 11 years, reporting on most towns in the region and specializing on statewide issues including education, agriculture, energy and mental health. Howard received a BA in Journalism from University of Massachusetts. He filed his first story with Vermont Public in September 2015.
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