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Legislature 2019
Cannabis debate takes shape this week

MONTPELIER — The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to submit a bill this week calling for the legal sale of cannabis in Vermont with a 10-percent tax.

The Senate bill could be introduced as early as Tuesday, according to committee members.

But the bill will not recommend funding for a roadside test for driver impairment, or education for youth and adults — something the committee said should be determined by Appropriations committees. That could prove to be a major stumbling block for Republican Gov. Phil Scott and House representatives who have rejected previous bills without a roadside test or support for education initiatives.

In a brief statement, Scott’s communications director, Rebecca Kelley, confirmed the governor’s stance: “The governor has been consistent in his position on this issue — while he’s not opposed to legalization, he believes it’s important to get it right. That means having measures in place to be able to test impairment on our roadways and ensuring adequate prevention and education programming is in place.”

The 10-percent tax proposed in a draft bill is less than the 26-percent tax (20-percent excise tax and 6-percent sales tax) plus a 1-percent options tax proposed last year by the Governor’s Marijuana Advisory Committee. Support for the Senate bill is expected to be strong, but its path in the House is less certain because of House Speaker Mitzi Johnson’s support for a roadside test and education programs for youth and adults.

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who said he supports the Senate bill, recently noted that the Joint Fiscal Office said there could be close to $370 million of economic activity with cannabis production in Vermont. It could attract an estimated 65 million people within a three- to seven-hour drive who would also spend money on hotels, restaurants and other Vermont services, he said.

“This edge we have with craft beer we could also have with cannabis,” Zuckerman said.

If there were revenues generated, Zuckerman said he would prefer to see the money invested in prevention and treatment, education and law enforcement, and higher education and economic development. He added that he opposed using revenues to fund education instead of raising the property tax rate, in case revenues dipped and created a budget crisis.

How did we get here?

Last year, the Legislature legalized possession, for adults over 21, of up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use in private and the ability to grow up to two mature and four immature cannabis plants. But the failure to allow the legal sale and purchase of cannabis raised concerns about the health and safety of people buying it on the illegal market, and the risk of penalties for doing so. There is also concern that Massachusetts and Canada already have legal sales and other states — Maine, New Hampshire and New York — could follow suit, with Vermonters buying cannabis elsewhere at the expense of the Vermont economy.

An initial Rand Corporation report several years ago projected earnings of up to $75 million a year in sales taxes on cannabis in Vermont, a number that has been revised down to between $10 million and $20,000 by a finance subcommittee of the Marijuana Advisory Commission as Vermont lagged behind other states that legalized sales.

Advocates said a failure to regulate pot in Vermont would also mean a missed opportunity to capitalize on sales to tourists visiting the state or offer struggling Vermont farmers the chance to diversify and capitalize on a lucrative cash crop. The recent federal declassification of hemp as a controlled substance is expected to be a boon for Vermont farmers producing medicinal cannabinoid (CBD) products, clothing and other products.

Tax-and-regulate

At the heart of the Senate bill is an effort to address many of those issues and reach a compromise. But the overarching concern for many — in the era of opioid and fatal fentanyl overdoses — is to protect consumers, particularly youth, from exposure to the illicit market.

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor County, was the only member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who voted against a Senate tax-and-regulate bill last year because it didn’t have provisions for a roadside test. But she is reportedly reconsidering her position because of health and safety concerns for consumers using the illicit market.

Support for the Senate bill is likely to come from Rep. Sam Young, D-Orleans-Caledonia district, who was the lead sponsor of a tax-and-regulate cannabis bill last year that failed in the House. He plans to submit a similar bill this year.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Young said. “You’ve got 20 percent of Vermont that uses cannabis on a regular basis.

Though there wasn’t support for a taxed and regulated market lat year, Young noted that there are many new legislators this year.

“I haven’t checked with all of them but it definitely feels like that (tax-and-regulate) is a much better system than we have now,” Young said.

Young said he believes legislators who opposed legalization of possession and use would prefer a tax-and-regulate system to ensure public health and safety and generate funds to support regulation and enforcement.

Young noted there would also need to be funding for education initiatives and prevention and treatment programs for substance abuse.

“I plan on putting in a bill, so there will be a bill in the House. The Senate can send something over to us. I think we have the votes, we have the vast majority of the Democratic caucus,” Young added, but hesitated to say they could override a governor veto. “If it’s going to be legal, we at least want some revenue. We missed our window to be the first, but it’s OK to take it slow and get it right and learn from other states (that have tax-and-regulate).”

Young said the House had never taken testimony on a tax-and-regulate model — testimony he thought would help to persuade legislators of the benefits of regulated sales if cannabis.

Support for the Senate bill came from fellow Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Rutland-Bennington district.

“I do support the lower tax because I do think that the higher the tax, the more likely people are to seek the black market,” Chesnut-Tangerman said. “To me, one of the major benefits of a tax-and-regulate market is not revenue generated but quality control (for public health and safety).”

Roadside testing

“We don’t intend to put the roadside testing into the bill, even though the commission, on a divided vote, recommended putting it in,” said Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “When and if it gets to the Senate floor, we’ll see what happens.

“We’re also not putting in the prevention stuff that the commission recommended,” Sears said, referring to the education component of cannabis legislation. “We feel that both traffic safety and the prevention stuff can come through the Appropriations process.”

Following the legalization of cannabis, Sears noted that the state had responded to the issue of driver impairment with an increase in Drug Recognition Experts (DRE).

“The issue of DREs is how many do we need?” Sears said.

“We have 55 DREs across the state. That may be an adequate number but may need to be better-located,” he added, noting that coverage was sometimes spotty around the state.

Both Ashe and Sears acknowledged that enforcement concerns were shared by Johnson and other representatives in the House.

Chesnut-Tangerman noted that Republican legislators had said if the state had legal possession and use, they were more likely to support tax-and-regulate, although the lack of a roadside test might make a bill’s successful passage through the House more difficult.

“But I don’t support the saliva roadside test, because it determines presence rather than impairment, and I think that would be problematic,” he said.

Sears stressed that it is likely that any tax-and-regulate law would take 12 to 18 months to implement, allowing plenty of time to build in safeguards on driver impairment and education initiatives.

Sen. Tim Ashe, the president pro-tempore, noted that it would also allow for other regulatory measures to be developed.

“As soon as a law would take effect is basically July 1,” Ashe said. “That would initiate the rule-making and all the regulatory construction to figure out who is going to open a store, have the growing licenses, establishing the licenses, establishing all the administrative pieces. So, 12 months is the safe amount of time to do that but it might take less time.”

Licensing

Ashe and Sears also said the implementation period would allow time to determine the structure around licensing the cultivation and testing of cannabis products overseen by the Agency of Agriculture, and licensing of retail establishments that would be managed by a Cannabis Control Board, funded by fees from licenses issued.

“The cultivation needs to take place before you can have sales to get that product,” Sears said.

“People have to buy the facilities and have the security and all the other stuff, so that when the product has been grown, there are things that happen in sequence,” Ashe added.

Ashe said it was hoped that Vermont farmers and retailers would be given every opportunity to benefit from a new retail market.

“Our emphasis is to make sure that it is a Vermont-scale program, making sure that most Vermont small farmers are the primary suppliers to a retail market in Vermont and that small retailers will frequently be Vermonters going through the local process,” Ashe said.

Sears added that he hoped to keep big tobacco companies like Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds out of the Vermont cannabis market, at least for a while, to give Vermont producers and retailers a chance to flourish.

Both Ashe and Sears stressed that they were primarily motivated by the need to ensure consumers buy safe products versus hopes of generating substantial revenues to prop up state programs, such as the education fund, which continues to experience shortfalls.

“The key piece is creating a safe, legal market so consumers know what they’re getting,” Ashe said.

Wait and see

“We’re just going to wait to see what actually passes the Senate and let our committee take a look at it,” Johnson has said.

Johnson also noted the difficulty in trying to estimate the right tax rate for cannabis sales, and balancing the need for health and safety oversight and the cost of regulation.

“You tax high to raise a lot of money but drive sales underground, or you tax low to undermine the black market but then risk not covering the costs to regulating that market,” she said.

Johnson said road safety, youth usage, and prevention education initiatives were her main concerns about a tax-and-regulated cannabis market in Vermont.

“We have education campaigns about other legal drugs, about prescription drugs and alcohol. So, we want to make sure we get those pieces right,” she said.

Johnson said she also supported the use of DREs and ensuring that Vermont farmers and retailers benefited from a legal cannabis market.

Johnson added that she didn’t expect the Senate bill to be considered until crossover in the session, after Town Meeting Day.Other support

stephen.mills

@timesargus.com


Josh Kuckens / Staff Photo  

Former Bennington County representative Kiah Morris, right, captures the attention of the crowd gathered for the Women’s March rally at the Vermont State House in Montpelier on Saturday.


Local
Women’s March
Hundreds attend women's rally despite frigid temps

MONTPELIER — Despite facing single-digit temperatures, hundreds of people turned out to support women, people of color and other groups while also protesting President Donald Trump.

Women’s March Vermont held a rally Saturday at the State House where people held up signs saying things like “Keep your laws off my body” and “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”

Amanda Garces is a member of the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools. She is also an immigrant from Colombia.

She said she was at the rally to talk about a 14-year-old girl who was crossing the Arizona border with Mexico when she died.

“It took three weeks for her remains to be found,” Garces said. “I am standing here for her and for the 7,000 migrants that have died crossing the border.”

Parts of the U.S. government are currently shut down over a dispute between Trump and Democrats in Congress over funding for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Garces said she was also at Saturday’s rally because she is afraid that people may not have noticed the people who have died crossing the desert to get to the U.S. She said people may also not have noticed that parts of the border already have a wall and border patrol is destroying humanitarian aid for immigrants.

“I am afraid that you have not noticed that white supremacy walks around us,” she said.

But she said she remembers she can’t be afraid because there is a resistance to these things. She said every day people fight back against injustice and to save lives.

Melody Walker Brook, a member of the Abenaki tribe, said violence against indigenous women is at epidemic levels.

“And in this post-me too world, don’t forget about the original woman and what is being done to her on a daily basis,” Walker Brook said.

She said people often talk about historical trauma woven into people’s DNA, but she wasn’t going to play the victim Saturday. She said she has so much strength pumping into her which is much more powerful than sorrow.

“Though I will not let sorrow feed me, I will never tune out injustice,” she said.

Caroline Whiddon is the co-founder of the Me2 Orchestra in Vermont with a mission of erasing the stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction. Whiddon said studies show as many as one in four people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime.

“So I’m able to look out at all of you today and I know that many of you had to fight the effects of trauma, addiction, depression or anxiety just to get out of bed and be here. I want you to know that I appreciate your effort. I really do. I may not know exactly who you are, but I see you,” she told the crowd at Saturday’s rally.

Whiddon said she’s been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She said those suffering from mental illness are never alone because there are many people feeling the same way they do.

She said mental illness is not a character flaw, and people she knows that live with mental illness and addiction are some of strongest people on the planet.

“And yet they often keep their illnesses secret because of the stigma and the discrimination that remain prevalent in our communities. Now being a woman with a mental illness or substance use disorder can mean living in secrecy. There’s long been a societal expectation that women not inconvenience anyone for long with our feelings of pain,” she said. “We’ve internalized the messages that we should be independent and self-reliant and we’re supposed to keep our houses in order. Heaven forbid we express our pain and risk being called emotional or hysterical. Trying to be everything to everyone while dealing with the stigma of mental illness and addiction puts a soul-crushing weight on us. And if you’re a woman of color or if you represent another marginalized community, that weight is even heavier and the stigma runs deeper.”

The lineup of speakers on Saturday also included: former state representative Kiah Morris, of Bennington, an African-American who previously resigned her elected post due to racially motivated harassment of her and her family; Beverly Little Thunder, of the Standing Rock Lakotas, expressing the views of Native Americans; and black liberation and environmental justice advocate Freweyni Adugnia.

eric.blaisdell

@timesargus.com


Local
Violence Against Women Act
Law funding victim support groups in limbo

In December, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) expired and was not reauthorized, threatening organizations and services for victims of domestic and sexual violence around the country with a loss of funding through federal grants.

“Its original intention was to improve criminal justice and community response for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault,” said Avaloy Lanning, director of the NewStory Center in Rutland. “(But) they couldn’t get their act together. If it doesn’t get reauthorized, it could be pretty devastating.”

Though there remain spending bills on the tables of the House and Senate to extend VAWA until Feb. 8, the longest-running government shutdown in history prevented the act’s re-authorization and may prevent many of those organizations from receiving their next reimbursement checks.

“VAWA covers a lot,” Lanning said. “Much of our funding is federal pass through money, and we can apply directly for some federal grants. Some money is direct money from the feds, and some money comes direct from the feds, through the state.”

Lanning said the NewStory Center provides the initial funding for every service they provide, whether it’s 24-hour emergency services, access to victims’ advocates, help with relief from abuse orders, warm beds and meals from their food shelf, or sexual assault exams and help finding employment and education.

The Center then applies for grant funding at the end of every quarter. Lanning said the Center has been told it’ll receive funding for the previous quarter but there’s no guarantee regarding the next one.

“Everything we’re doing now, starting Jan. 1., all the housing, services, payroll, we’re doing with our fingers crossed that we’ll get reimbursed come April,” Lanning said.

A continued government shutdown puts the NewStory Center and other social programs in jeopardy, causing the groups to depend on other funding for whatever programs they can manage to keep going.

And in a state where domestic violence comprises 50 percent of all homicides, those programs are crucial.

“In the last fiscal year, we served 700 people total,” Lanning said. “Both primary victims and attendant children through all of our services ... It would be up to us as an organization to raise funds to continue those, and to pay people fairly.”

Lanning said the Center already struggles to utilize the grant funding it receives, as the funds can often only be used for very specific services.

“VAWA is certainly the umbrella legislation that covers this population, victims of domestic and sexual violence,” Lanning said. “Without it, we would go backwards. We don’t want to go back.”

The original VAWA legislation, passed in 1994, was the first to coordinate the criminal justice and social services systems with private nonprofits to create a more concentrated, multi-faceted response to domestic and sexual violence with increased support for shelters and crisis centers.

It also implemented federal prosecution of interstate domestic violence and sexual assault, and protection for immigrants, minority populations and other vulnerable factions, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

When it was re-authorized six years later, dating violence and stalking protections were added to VAWA, while also creating a portal for legal aid for victims and supporting supervised visitation for families.

The new legislation also created “U” visas for non-citizen immigrants experiencing violence in the U.S., and “T” visas for victims of human trafficking, allowing them to remain in the country instead of being deported.

In 2005, the legislation was reauthorized again, creating protections specifically for immigrant victims and more specifically, immigrant women, investing in violence prevention programs and protecting victims from eviction resulting directly from domestic violence by eliminating bad rental history that might keep them from leaving their situation.

“If neighbors complained that police kept coming to a house because of domestic violence, then the landlord may kick them out,” Lanning said. “We know as advocates, and people who work on domestic violence, the police may be called multiple times.”

The new legislation also enacted new funding for rape crisis centers, developed communications programs for victims from other cultures, and supported programs for disabled victims.

The act was most recently reauthorized by President Barack Obama in 2013. That bill featured more protection for Native Americans and the LGBTQ community, more resources for law enforcement to address rape and sexual violence, and for colleges to inform students about sexual assault and dating violence.

That bill also gave jurisdiction to tribal courts when domestic violence happened on tribal lands, enforced relief for immigrant victims, and implemented more assistance programs for the LGBTQ community.

But if the shutdown continues, and VAWA isn’t re-authorized, Lanning said there’s no guaranteeing how long the NewStory Center would last.

“Financially, we have some reserves set aside for emergencies, but it wouldn’t keep us going for very long,” Lanning said. “Our services would have to change. We might have to cut office hours, which would mean smaller paychecks ... Ultimately, I would probably lose really good, talented people.”

katelyn.barcellos

@rutlandherald.com


Provided Photo  

Christina Wiles, a Girl Scout and member of the Vermont National Guard from Brandon, was recognized for her work in creating a mentoring program involving Middlebury Union High School students and children attending Mary Hogan Elementary.


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