Attorney General TJ Donovan said Vermont is in difficult legal situation on marijuana: Possession of up to an ounce is legal in the state, but buying so much as a gram is not.
With legislators expected to take up the issue in 2020, Donovan invited state officials, as well as representatives from Massachusetts and Maine, to Burlington on Thursday to talk about a regulated market for cannabis sales.
“We can’t now go back after we’ve legalized it and say there’s nothing to do or nothing to see here,” Donovan said. “We’ve created an illicit black market with our current system.”
Some opponents of full-blown legalization of marijuana said a commercial market would not eliminate street sales. They noted that in California, where sales became legal in 2018, most marijuana is not bought in state-licensed stores.
Dr. Catherine Antley of the Vermont Medical Society said she was concerned about what she calls a focus on addiction by commercial cannabis retailers in order to develop and maintain a customer base. “They’re doing that by creating a more concentrated product, a more addictive product, and in advertising to children THC gummies and that kind of thing,” she said.
Ben Joseph of North Hero, a retired Vermont Superior Court Judge, said he doesn’t believe tax revenue from marijuana sales would be worth the human cost. During his years on the bench, he said, he heard cases in which people were killed by people driving high.
“We had this infamous case recently, the Bourgoin case. Some guy was out of his mind on nothing but marijuana,” Joseph said. “This is the kind of thing which is going to happen more often.”
Steven Bourgoin, who was found guilty of killing five teenagers in a wrong-way crash in 2016, also had fentanyl and a prescription sedative in his system, according to toxicology reports presented at trial.
Also on Thursday, Maine began to accept applications for state-licensed retail shops. Erik Gunderson of the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy said the businesses, which could open next year, will be subject to a 20 percent tax on marijuana sales, the same rate Massachusetts levies on its recreational cannabis retailers.
“Some of the tax revenue that we’re going to be generating, once we have legal sales up and running, are going specifically to law enforcement training, which my office is in charge of setting up,” Gunderson said.
Gov. Phil Scott has said he won’t sign a tax-and-regulate law in Vermont unless roadside saliva testing by law enforcement were part of the legislation. Gunderson said that, right now, there is no reliable test to determine a person’s level of impairment from marijuana.
Gunderson also offered some advice for Vermont, including not to rush the process. He said it will be important to listen to, and incorporate, community feedback, regardless of its perspective on the issue. He also said, somewhat jokingly, that it would be important to hire people smarter than yourself to operate the program.