Lawmakers mull how, not if, to legalize marijuana

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers are taking up a central question surrounding marijuana legalization, and that is not whether to legalize, but how to do it.

The Senate Government Operations Committee took testimony Tuesday from a very one-sided selection of members of the public who touched on questions surrounding licensing, distribution and retail sales, but not if cannabis should be legalized in the first place.

During the last legislative session, the committee spent its Friday afternoons combing through a 150-page study from the Rand Corp. — commissioned by the state and released in January — that looked at legalization, from the number of users in the state to potential revenue and the impact on tourism.

Committee Chairwoman Jeanette White, D-Windham, acknowledged from the start of Tuesday’s hearings that the question of whether marijuana should be legalized will not rest with her committee, but with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Jeanette White

Sen. Jeanette White

Due to the nature of the discussion, the speakers were pro-legalization, and came at the issue not asking if, but how.

Bill Lofy, Vermont Cannabis Collaborative, offered a three-tiered licensing structure, ranging from people growing for personal use to small craft growers and larger commercial operations.

“Vermont has an opportunity to create a thriving new economy based on our values and our traditions,” said Lofy, who said Vermont could develop an a craft-grower industry similar to the state’s thriving craft-beer industry.

Lofy suggested that promoting small craft-grower industry would address some of the problems seen in Colorado and Washington, where small start-up cultivators have been forced out the market by industrial growing operations.

However, Lofy said the state would need large-scale operations — he suggested they be capped at 30,000 square feet, far smaller than the 150,000-square-foot operations in Colorado — so that enough product is produced to keep the price below that found on the black market.

Lofy suggested a personal grower be allowed as many as six plants, a craft grower would be allowed seven to 99 plants, and an industrial grower would have 100 plants or more.

Stewart Savel, of Brattleboro, suggested that people growing for personal use should not be required to get a license.

“People should be allowed to grow for themselves without a license. If you want to sell it, you should get a license,” said Savel, who said there should not be any limit on the number of commercial licenses available, or the number of retail establishments allowed to sell the product.

Francis Janik, a Jamaica resident and a registered medical marijuana user and grower, suggested the state regulate and license in 100-square-foot units, with the first unit for free.

Janik said there should be no limits to the number units a person could receive a license for. He also argued that, if marijuana is legalized, anyone who has been prosecuted for pot-related offenses should receive amnesty.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, noted that during the last legislative session, lawmakers passed a law to expunge criminal records for crimes when they are no longer illegal.

Emily Amanna, a farmer from Athens who sells grass-fed meats, said any growing and selling structure should keep the farming industry in mind.

“It is a challenge to survive as a farmer every year in this state, let alone thrive,” said Amanna, who said marijuana would afford a farmer more agricultural diversity and, ultimately, more financial security.

Amanna said the first round of licenses should go to farmers, and they should be affordable so small farmers are not shut out.

Benning suggested that selling marijuana at farm stands or at farmers markets will lack the testing and protections that would be found at a retail establishment.

Amanna said that, whether it’s marijuana or grass-fed meat, the best guarantee of quality is knowing your grower.

Later this month, the Senate Committee on Government Operations will begin crafting legislation on the implementation of legalization.

josh.ogorman@rutlandherald.com

Watch video of Tuesday’s hearing by David Smith: 

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