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State Senate Works To Define A Marijuana Market, In Case Of Legalization

Peter Hirschfeld
Bill Lofy, former chief of staff for Gov. Peter Shumlin, is working with a group called the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative on a plan to legalize marijuana in Vermont. At a Statehouse hearing on Tuesday, he urged lawmakers to adopt a tiered system that wou

Assuming for a moment that elected officials decided it was time to legalize marijuana, what would a regulated cannabis market actually look like? That’s the question a key Senate committee has set out to answer, and lawmakers say that if legalization moves forward, they want to do it the Vermont way.

Tuesday morning, The Senate Committee on Government Operations convened in the Statehouse to begin building its legalization proposal. Windham Sen. Jeannette White, the committee’s Democratic chairwoman, began the meeting with an explanation of what that meeting was not going to be.

“The question of should it or shouldn’t it be legalized will be held in a different forum, probably in the Judiciary Committee,” White said.

Whether or not lawmakers are ready to adopt a tax-and-regulate model for cannabis remains an open question. White’s committee though is mapping out rules of the road if the drive for legalization does succeed.

On Thursday, some of the people behind that push offered some soaring visions.

“Vermont has an opportunity to create thriving new economy based on our values, and our traditions,” said Bill Lofy.

Lofy is working with a group called the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative. And if his name sounds familiar, it’s because he formerly served as chief of staff for Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Lofy wasn’t the only Montpelier bigwig in the room on Thursday. Prominent lobbyists are already fielding contracts from would-be growers and investors in the cannabis economy.

The Vermont Cannabis Collaborative was founded by a group of three entrepreneurs. Lofy says some members in the all-volunteer group may well pursue their own grow operations if lawmakers pass legislation.

But Lofy says the Cannabis Collaborative wants the law to limit the size of industrial growing operations, to prevent a few corporate growers from dominating the market. He says that would ensure market space for “artisanal” producers.  

“We think cooperatives could allow small craft growers to enter the market and have the kind of impact on our economy that craft brewers have already had,” Lofy said. “They might help some of the hundreds of small family farmers in Vermont generate enough money to actually stay in business, and maybe even encourage others to enter farming.”

The Vermont Cannabis Collaborative has organized a series of public forums across the state, and it’s commissioned a study on what a legal market should look like.

Lofy laid out the basics Tuesday, and they involve a tiered system of home growers, producing for personal consumption, “craft” growers, who could grow up to 99 plants for the retail market, and industrial growers, who could maintain operations of up to 30,000 square feet.

Even among legalization proponents, however, visions for the market don’t always overlap. Lofy wants to limit the number of growers who can sell their marijuana.

“Overproduction is a real concern,” Lofy said.

Francis Janik, who represents the group, Vermont Homegrown, told lawmakers that such restrictions would be a mistake. He said the more the cannabis-pie gets divided, the more Vermonters will benefit.

“We will end up with a group of small businesses that are providing income for families and that are providing a good quality product that can have a Vermont label on it,” Janik said.

Howard Fairman, a Putney resident who traveled the length of the state to testify Tuesday, said he thinks existing Vermont farmers should have first dibs on whatever marijuana growing licenses the state does give out.

The fact that the Senate Committee on Government Operations isn’t seeking anti-legalization testimony didn’t keep opponents at bay. Dr. Catherine Antley, a pathologist with a private practice in Burlington, watched from the background Tuesday, then spoke to cameras during a break in the action.

“I’m very concerned that we’re looking at a balance sheet and we’re only taking into account the positives,” Antley said. “We’re not accounting for how much it’s going to cost to tutor children, to take care of families that are affected by addiction.”

People pushing for legalization, however, say the public revenue generated from legal marijuana sales could fund substance-abuse prevention that would more than offset whatever societal ills came about as a result of opening up the market.

Eli Harrington has founded a company called “Vermontijauna,” something he says is an “engagement platform” for people interested in the issue.

On Tuesday, he told lawmakers he represents the view of the millennial generation.

“I’m happy that I’m not the only one under 30 in this room,” Harrington said.

Harrington said that from a cultural and economic standpoint, legalization is a no-brainer.

“There is amazing, amazing energy, especially with entrepreneurs, and especially with younger entrepreneurs,” said Harrington, a former employee of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce. “All the really smart marketing and advertising people are chomping at the bit.”

So is legalization truly on the legislative fast track for 2016?

“That seems to be the question everybody is asking,” said Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning.

Benning is a prominent Republican supporter of legalization, but says the path is anything but certain.

“Whether it gets through the Senate is anybody’s guess,” Benning said.

Even if the bill does pass the Senate, it still has to get through the 150-member House.

White says she hopes to have the bill out of her committee and into the Senate Judiciary Committee in the first week of the session. And that’s where lawmakers will begin debate not about a legal market should look like, but whether or not Vermont should have one.

Benning said that while he supports legislation, he wants to make sure Vermont takes the time to get it right.

“I’m not interested in jamming something through that doesn’t work right,” Benning said.

Lofy said the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative, which will unveil the results of its legalization study later this month, agrees with the sentiment.

“That said, there is certainly an advantage to going first,” Lofy said. “From a branding perspective, it’s an opportunity for us to establish ourselves as this cannabis center of excellence, and also just in terms of a purely financial revenue perspective.”

Lofy says the state would benefit financially from marijuana tourism, if it beats other northeast states to the punch. He also says the state could distinguish itself as a leader in testing, and in the development of new strains, for recreational and medical use.

CORRECTION: This story previously misidentified a former employer of Eli Harrington.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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