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Not If, But When: Scott's Marijuana Commission Focuses On Framework For Legalization

Members of the Marijuana Advisory Commission met for the first time Thursday in Waterbury. Administration officials say it's now a matter of how, not if, Vermont legalizes marijuana.
Peter Hirschfeld
Members of the Marijuana Advisory Commission met for the first time Thursday in Waterbury. Administration officials say it's now a matter of how, not if, Vermont legalizes marijuana.

Top officials in the administration of Republican Gov. Phil Scott say marijuana legalization is now inevitable in Vermont, and that they’ve been instructed to craft the framework for what will one day become an above-board cannabis market in the state.

Earlier this month, Scott signed an executive order creating a “Marijuana Advisory Commission.” He said at the time that Vermont “cannot ignore the fact that states around us have already legalized.” And he said the advisory commission “allows us to identify the best, most responsible path forward on this issue.”

At the commission’s first meeting Thursday morning, it became clearer where that path is headed when Commissioner of Taxes Kaj Samsom clarified the panel’s charge.

“It seems to me, and I just want to clarify for all of us and for the co-chairs of the commission, that this is not a study of whether to have legal marijuana, it’s a how-to,” Samsom said.

Scott’s general counsel Jaye Pershing Johnson immediately responded by saying, ‘Yes, that’s the direction.”

“We’re moving forward,” Johnson said. “We’re looking for consensus recommendations from the subcommittees and consideration by the commission on the best way for Vermont to get there.”

Samsom is serving as chair of the commission’s “taxation and regulation” subcommittee. In a meeting with that group later in the morning, he expounded on the commission’s controversial task.

"To the extent that we start to kind of move into a debate about the wisdom of whether we should be doing this, we're wasting our time frankly." — Commission of Taxes Kaj Samsom

“As I talk about this professionally and among friends [about] my role in this, it inevitably leads to a debate about the wisdom of legalizing marijuana,” Samsom said. “And we have a lot of work to do, and to the extent that we start to kind of move into a debate about the wisdom of whether we should be doing this, we’re wasting our time frankly.”

“My understanding from the governor’s office, and the executive order … is that this is how to get to yes safely and responsibly,” Samsom said.

Those words were difficult ones to hear for Dr. Jill Rinehart, a primary care pediatrician who serves on the Marijuana Advisory Commission.

Rinehart, who also serves as the president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has advocated strenuously against legalization. She said that effort now appears to be a lost cause.

“We are kind of facing this public desire for something to change with relation to marijuana,” Rinehart said. “But I think there’s a lot of unanticipated consequences we are now learning so much about.”

Rinehart said those lessons are arriving from other states that have legal, commercial marijuana markets, like Colorado, California and Washington. Rinehart said she’s talked with physician colleagues in those states.

“It hasn’t been a pretty thing for them, in terms of the safety of their patients,” Rinehart said.

Asked whether she thinks it’s possible to legalize marijuana in Vermont without compromising public health or safety, she said, “No.”

But she said she still plans to engage in the process.

“I thought … we learned this morning though too that the results of whatever happens with this commission have to show a net result in improved public safety,” Rinehart said. “And how you do that … will be sort of my role here on the commission, to hold them to that task.”

Laura Subin, director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, a legalization advocacy group, said she’s still wary of the legislative landscape ahead, despite the path the commission appears to be on.

During a veto session earlier this year, lawmakers nearly passed a legalization bill, which would have legalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and allowed for small homegrown operations, that the governor had said he would sign.

House Republicans blocked a vote on that bill, but key Democratic officials said they intend to take up the measure again in 2018. Subin worries the existence of the commission might stall action.

“I think anytime there’s a commission like this, it gives policymakers an easy out to say, ‘Let’s wait and see what the commission comes up with before we take any action,” Subin said Thursday. “Much of what this commission is charged with looking at and reviewing, we’ve already done in a comprehensive way in Vermont. And it’s time to move forward. We’ve studied and studied and studied these issues.”

By all accounts in the Scott administration, however, it appears that legalization is moving inexorably forward. Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts represents farming interests on the Marijuana Advisory Commission.

“I would encourage all our farmers to pay attention to this discussion, because from what we’ve heard today, we’re not debating if it’s going to happen — it’s when and how it’s going to look,” Tebbetts said.

Tebbetts said the marijuana market of the future could include opportunities that Vermont farmers are uniquely positioned to seize.

“They do have land, they do have infrastructure,” Tebbetts said. “They know how to grow things, they know how to sells things.”

Tebbetts and other administration officials said the commission’s job now is to make sure the legalization proposal adequately addresses issues of health and public safety.  

While lawmakers might legalize possession and homegrown in 2018, a taxed and regulated marijuana market likely won’t happen next year. That’s because the commission won’t deliver its final recommendations to the governor until December of 2018.

Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears says that when the proposal is complete, he’ll lead the charge for legislation to put it into effect. Commercial marijuana markets in Maine and Massachusetts will go into effect in July of 2018.

“Personally, I want to see a taxed and regulated system as soon as possible, if we do legalize,” Sears said.

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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