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Cannabis stores are coming to Vermont. What are your questions?

A table with glass jars filled with pot
FangXiaNuo
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iStock
This hour, an update on Vermont's cannabis retail market.

What's the state of Vermont's legal cannabis marketplace? The first retail cannabis stores are set to open in just a few months. This hour, we'll bring you a cannabis update, courtesy of Brave Little State, Vermont Public’s people-powered journalism project, and a conversation about Vermont’s cannabis economy.

Our guests is:

  • James Pepper, chair of Vermont's Cannabis Control Board

Mikaela Lefrak: Your office just announced a big new hire yesterday of a new compliance director, Cary Giguere, who's going to make sure that all of the licensed cannabis businesses follow all the state's regulations. Can you tell us a bit about this role?

James Pepper. I'm happy to. He is really the kind of rock over at the agency of agriculture. I actually feel bad that we kind of pulled him away, but he is really one of the original thought leaders on cannabis legalization in this state.

"It's a really exciting moment in Vermont. You know, this is something that's 10, 20, 50 years in the making, if you think about when the war on drugs was first declared by the federal government. And here we are, on the precipice."
James Pepper, Cannabis Control Board chair

When I first started thinking about cannabis policy, he was right there alongside me. He really has it focus on clean products, on the Vermont brand, he's really built the state testing lab for the cannabis quality program—which is our industrial hemp program—and he is just going to be such an asset to our team. He served on our advisory committee, and essentially drafted the regulations around testing. And he's now going to be in charge of making sure that people comply with those regulations.

We also have a director of licensing, that we are about to announce, a deputy director of licensing. We have compliance enforcement staff which will report to [Giguere] and then just a few other kinds of odds and ends positions that are going to help us kind of keep the cannabis board moving in the right direction.

Caller Emory from Bellows Falls asks, is there any more information on lifting the cap for [cannabis] concentrates above 60%? THC?

"[Cannabis] is legal, it's legal to grow ... and yet, it's illegal to consume anywhere, except if you own a house. If you're in a car, it's illegal. If you're out in public, it's illegal. Landlords can restrict [it] ... so, one of the recommendations the board made to the legislature was to allow on-site consumption."
James Pepper, Cannabis Control Board chair

This was a very important policy decision that our advisory committee weighed last summer, and we ultimately came down that, you know, we need to lift this cap on high THC concentrates. [THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, the substance in cannabis that gets people high.]

And just to be clear, this is solid concentrates. This doesn't apply to things like vape cartridges or oils or tinctures. It's a it's a 60% THC cap on solid concentrates.

And really, you know, the whole premise behind cannabis legalization is that prohibition does not eliminate the demand for a product, and that there's a net benefit to public health, public safety, to provide consumers with clean products. And we just don't know what's going into these illicit market, high-THC concentrates. And I hate to advertise for the illicit market, but it's easy to go on any social media site and have high-THC concentrates delivered to your door anywhere in Vermont. And we made this case to the legislature.

Ultimately, you know, I think the legislature came around to the idea that that we need to allow these, but they got hung up on exactly how we regulate them. Should we have serving sizes? Should we have, you know, equivalent, or transaction caps on how much you can purchase at a single time? And so they needed more information. And with all the other kinds of things going on legislatively, they asked the cannabis board to write a report about how we would regulate these things. And that's due in December, and I'm sure there will be a bill to do this. So I guess, stay tuned for how that resolves.

Caller Bradford in Brookfield asked, how do you go about getting a grower license or application Are you still handing out those licenses?

Yes, absolutely. We do not have a cap on licenses, like many other states do. If you apply, and you can meet our minimum qualifications, then you will get a license in Vermont.

And so to do that, the best way is to go to our website. We have a Licensing Portal, and you can enter your information, your business plan, what type of license you're looking for, and the board will review these. And honestly, we have a little bit of a backlog right now, but we're cranking through them. We've reviewed all of our tier-one cultivators, or outdoor cultivators. We have about 215 [applications] left before we kind of get through our backlog though.

Caller David in Jeffersonville asks, do you have any information for on-premise consumption [of cannabis is areas where it's currently prohibited, like outdoors or in public]?

Yes. This is another one of those contradictions in the law, which is, [cannabis] is legal, it's legal to grow, it's illegal to purchase. And yet, it's illegal to consume anywhere, except if you own a house.

If you're in a car, it's illegal. If you're out in public, it's illegal. Landlords can restrict your ability to consume or grow if you're leasing a place. So, one of the recommendations the board made to the legislature was to allow on-site consumption. And also, special event licensing. Like, you have kind of a cash bar at a wedding. Well, you could also conceive of a wedding where you might have a cash bar for cannabis consumption.

So, this is something that needs to be determined legislatively. It's currently prohibited by law to have these kinds of onsite consumption lounges. But it is something that we're going to continue to push for. And honestly, I think the legislature, you know, they're moving slowly. They're moving conservatively in this space. We have transportation issues in Vermont, there's lots of highway safety issues that need to be resolved before we can kind of just open the doors to onsite consumption. But we're starting to see it in other states, and I think this is in the in the future of Vermont's market.

What's the update here on issuing licenses to outdoor growers? I know a lot of folks are kind of anxious right now to get approved so that they can harvest in time for a fall market.

Absolutely. The exciting news that we announced at our meeting yesterday is that our licensing staff has reviewed all of the outdoor applications for tier-one outdoor cultivators. We have 22, as of yesterday. Twenty-two outdoor cultivator applications that are pending review. And so once we get through those, and they kind of meet our minimum qualifications, we issue the license, you can start cultivating.

We know that the clock is ticking, we know that every day is now getting shorter. And these folks, if they want to participate, they need to get their seeds in the ground immediately. So, that's been a top priority for the board.

Caller Lisa in Shelburne asked whether having public access [to cannabis] might impact the price on products for people who currently have a medical marijuana option?

This is something that the board takes very seriously. Obviously, the most vulnerable consumers are the people that participate in the state's Medical Program. And also, you know, we've seen in every other state that, once a profit motive starts to sneak in on the people that may have been happy to supply product for medical patients, you know, [it] shifts to the adult [recreational cannabis] side.

What we did in our rules, and I hate to get hyper technical here, is that we said, if you are an existing medical dispensary, you need to keep enough supply on-hand for three months for every patient. So while the medical dispensaries—and there's five of them in the state—are permitted to access the adult recreational market, they need to [maintain] prices and services for their patients.

Caller Mary in Montpelier asks, if somebody is interested in making some sort of edible product, like say a brownie, is the health department involved in that decision? Do they have to inspect the kitchen facilities or that kind of stuff?

Unfortunately, this is one of those areas where people can kind of say, "no, we're not going to do that because of the federal status of cannabis." So, the short answer is, no.

But the the longer answer is that, it's the board's responsibility. And we're going to use the exact same health regulations that the Department of Health uses to certify commercial kitchens, for our kind of product manufacturer licensees.

A big, overarching question is, will we have enough supply to meet demand on Oct. 1 when this marketplace kicks off?

The answer is no. I hate to say that, but really, it's true of every state. Because of the status of cannabis federally, the entirety of the supply chain has to be built in Vermont. And that's from seed to sale, including testing and product manufacturing.

We can ask people to kind of plant their seed, we can issue licenses, we can't control when they plant their seeds. And it's just going to take a little bit of time for this market to fully develop and mature. I can say that the very good news is, I was looking at the number of licenses we have in our licensing queue, the pending applications, and I just calculated how much canopy—the total grow capacity that would equate to, if we licensed all those people—and we're in very good shape to meet the demand, but it's not going to happen overnight.

Can you tell us a bit more about the manufacturing and wholesaling licenses that will become available July 1, and what kind of role are they going to play in the state's cannabis industry?

Product manufacturers really are the people that make the edibles, make the gummies. They can also make high-THC concentrates and vape cartridges, things like that.

We created three tiers of product manufacturers. One is kind of based upon a home food manufacturer. So, it's a very low barrier to entry way for people to make a little bit of supplemental income making maybe, you know, brownies or something in their home bakery.

We have kind of tier two that is really more of the commercial kitchen, and then a tier three, which makes the kind of oils and tinctures and the things that require kind of solvents.

Those tiers open up tomorrow. And we're hopeful. We've pre-qualified, I think, 30 product manufacturers, so we hope to have a fair number of people kind of jump in at that tier. And then we also have wholesalers opening as well tomorrow [July 1].

When this marketplace kicks off in October, what's the first place you're going to be visiting?

Hopefully, we have some places here, and I'd just love to, you know, see how successful they're going to be.

You know, I hope that there aren't lines around the block. That's kind of been the hallmark of many other states. But we did allow online ordering, so people can kind of hopefully check out what's available before they actually wait in the line for an hour.

It'll be an exciting. It's a really exciting moment in Vermont. You know, this is something that's 10, 20, 50 years in the making, if you think about when the war on drugs was first declared by the federal government. And here we are, on the precipice.

Broadcast live at noon on Thursday, June 30, 2022; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Mikaela Lefrak joined Vermont Public in 2021 as co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Originally from Delaware, Matt moved to Alaska in 2010 for his first job in radio. He spent five years working as a radio and television reporter, radio producer, talk show host, and news director. His reporting received awards from the Alaska Press Club and the Alaska Broadcasters Association. Relocating to southwest Florida, he was a producer for television news and NPR member station WGCU for their daily radio show, Gulf Coast Live. He joined Vermont Public in October 2017 as producer of Vermont Edition.