This week, the process of setting up a legal cannabis marketplace in Vermont took a long-anticipated step forward as Gov. Phil Scott named his picks for the state’s Cannabis Control Board, which will set the rules for marijuana sales.
Board members include:
- James Pepper, a deputy state’s attorney for the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs
- Julie Hulburd, human resources director at the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. and chair of the state ethics commission
- Kyle Harris, an agriculture development specialist at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets
While the picks are subject to Senate confirmation, the board, in conjunction with the state Legislature, are key to getting the state’s legal program off the ground in what is becoming a tight timeline. Sales are supposed to begin in the fall of 2022.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Sen. Christopher Pearson, a Progressive/Democrat from Burlington who was on the nominating committee for the Cannabis Control Board and who has been following the state’s marketplace closely. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So, these picks for the control board came later than planned, and Senate Democrats voiced some concerns about that, saying the whole process might be pushed back a year. How are you feeling now that there are picks named for the board?
Sen. Chris Pearson: I don’t think we’ll lose a year, but, you know, a lot of us have been fighting for this for many years. So, we might argue we’d already lost several years. We did take some steps in S. 25, which is advancing now, to make sure that the delay in getting the board up and running won’t cause us more than a couple of months setback.
OK, and how quickly do you expect the board to get to work? And what are the main issues that they’ll need to tackle to get regulations in place?
I would hope they’ll be up and running within a few weeks. Then they get the opportunity to hire an executive director and sort of get their own systems up and running.
Out of the gate, they have a whole host of regulations and decisions to make, but one of the early decision points is around quantities. How many farmers do we need? How many facilities do we want to have… retail facilities or processors?
You’ve seen this in other jurisdictions where Quebec, for instance, they ran out of product very early on, and they suddenly found their stores could only sustain being opened Saturday and Sunday. So, you know, there’s a lot of those kinds of decisions and estimates and calculations that the board is meant to take on early in their process.
Well, I want to turn to the bill, which you mentioned earlier, S.25, which the Senate has been working on. Among other things, it seeks to improve racial equity in the cannabis industry by enabling people who’ve been disproportionately impacted by past marijuana laws to get into the legal marijuana marketplace. And this has been tried in other states that have legalized cannabis sales, and there have been mixed outcomes. So, what is going to be Vermont’s approach to tackling this issue?
“Out of the gate, they have a whole host of regulations and decisions to make, but one of the early decision points is around quantities.” — Sen. Chris Pearson
Well, we’re asking the board to prioritize that. We’re giving them the option to waive fees for communities that have been impacted, and also trying to be sure that the Black community, as an example, maybe could get a head start and a little bit of preference in terms of getting a license to start up a small facility, a small grow operation.
We’re also considering some grant funding so that folks do have access to business planning. Those are some of the approaches. There’s more work to do, but it’s important for listeners to know, last year, we did expunge marijuana records in a separate bill. Those are some of the steps we have taken and are continuing to look at more.
Well, in terms of the makeup of the control board, which will tackle these issues, as you mentioned, they are not particularly racially diverse. Will that limit their ability to set up this system with issues of racial equity baked into it?
I sure hope not. You know, it’s incumbent on the board to hear from the community, hear from all sorts of stakeholders to plan a course. I mean, that was a priority, that has been articulated in the law and in S.25 as a priority. So, let’s hope the board honors the legislation.
OK. Speaking of that legislation, you mentioned there are some provisions in it to sort of keep this process moving along. Can you outline what some of those things are? How will, if that passes, move things along to ensure that sales actually do happen next fall?
One of the things that we were worried about with the delay in naming the board was the fee structure. So, in order to get a permit to grow or to open a store, you have to pay a fee. In order to figure out what the fee should be, you have to figure out how many of each kind of business we anticipate having in needing to supply the market.
We had anticipated the board being in place around the first of the year and asked them to come to the Legislature by April 1 with the fee structure. Obviously, that’s not going to be possible, since we’re past April 1. So, what we’ve done is, is say, OK, the board can bring the fee proposal to the Joint Fiscal Committee – that is a collection of House and Senate members that meets for these kinds of operations when the Legislature is out of session.
Essentially, would that mean that lawmakers would not have to come back later this year to keep things on track? This could be done out of session?
Yeah, I doubt we would come back just for that.
Finally, Sen. Pearson, as you’re looking at things now, will there be a marijuana marketplace with the ability for residents to buy cannabis legally in Vermont by the fall of next year?
By the fall of 2022, yes, I expect there will be.
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