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Recreational Cannabis In Vermont: The Ins And Outs

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At the beginning of the year, Vermont lawmakers made their state the ninth in the nation to legalize cannabis use and the first to do it through the legislature rather than direct voter initiative. Now, with the new law set to take effect on July 1st, many are wondering just what the recreational market and regulations will look like.

The Basics:

Vermont’s Republican Governor, Phill Scott, signed H. 511, the legislation legalizing recreational adult-use, in late January. The governor explained the move, which breaks with the current position of many of his fellow Republicans, by embracing more traditional GOP values. “…what adults do behind closed doors and on private property is their choice,” he said, “so long as it does not negatively impact the health and safety of others, especially children.” Still, the governor expressed “mixed feelings” about signing the law.

Under the law, adults over 21 can:

  • Have up to one ounce of cannabis, or up to five grams of hashish.
  • Cultivate “two mature and four immature marijuana plants.”
    – These must be on private property.
    – They must be in an enclosure that is secured.
    – They must be out of sight of the public.
  • Cultivated plants are not considered to be a part of the one-ounce possession rule.
  • Renters must obtain property owners’ permission before cultivating marijuana plants.

 Public Consumption/Vehicle Rules:

  • “Consumption of marijuana in a public place or in a vehicle is prohibited…”
  • “…as is possession of an open container of marijuana in a vehicle.”
  • “…violations are subject to civil penalties.”

Also subject to civil penalties is the enabling of minors under 21 to consume marijuana. However, the legislation does not address “gifting” in detail. In the past, gifting in the District of Columbia and other special legal jurisdictions has been used to get around market restrictions.

As with other states, Vermont employers still have the right to have and enforce policies that prohibit consumption, cultivation, or display of cannabis in the workplace. This includes zero-tolerance policies which allow for employee termination on the grounds of marijuana use outside of the workplace. Employers with these policies were cautioned by the Vermont Attorney General’s office to be wary of penalizing employees who use cannabis medically to relieve severe conditions.

A guidance report issued by the office recently says that because it is illegal to discriminate against any “qualified individual with a disability,” and because discrimination can mean “failure to provide reasonable accommodation to that individual,” there may be repercussions for employers who choose to enforce such zero-tolerance policies. “…employees carrying a medical marijuana card and those dealing with substance abuse issues may be protected under [the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act’s] disability provisions.”

The Complicated Part:

There is no system under the new law to grant access to marijuana products or seeds. Yes, that’s right. Possession and consumption are decriminalized, but there are no new guidelines or provisions for dispensaries or other retail outlets, as has been the practice of other cannabis-legal states.

This leaves adult users to wonder where they are supposed to purchase cannabis products or seeds legally. Theoretically, medical users can still obtain cannabis from the dispensaries they’ve been using, but those without medical cards are left in a tangle of confusing and contradictory regulations.

The Burlington Free Press reported that the argument from advocates of legalization is “…that people who are interested in growing marijuana probably have access [to seeds] already.” Those advocates also say that “the lifting of penalties and stigma” will be the most noticeable change.

Vermont’s Fight to Avoid Commercial Legalization

Even though the Vermont legislature was the first state government to pass a legalization act, it has still been around two years since the state Senate passed the first tax-and-regulate bill, and that bill was rejected by the House.

Lawmakers in favor of a commercial legalization bill fought for it even through April of this year, but such attempts failed in a floor vote. Democratic lawmakers warned that the timing, in light of Governor Scott signing H. 511 into law so recently, was not right. In April, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D) said on Vermont Public Radio that some form of tax and regulate bill was inevitable, regardless of the outcome of the most recent attempt.

Zuckerman said “This vote does not reflect the sentiment of the people,” and added that a tax and regulate bill would likely progress “…when the will of the people is reflected in [the legislature].”

Where Do Medicinal Marijuana Patients Stand Under the New Recreational System?

In addition to the conundrum of the lack of retail outlets for seeds and other cannabis products, there are some other key differences between the current medicinal marijuana laws and the new recreational ones:

  • Medicinal patients are allowed to grow up to nine plants indoors, while recreational users can have up to six either indoors or outdoors.
  • Harvested plants for recreational use do not apply to the one-ounce possession limit, while plants for medicinal use do apply to the two-ounce limits under those regulations.

According to one drug policy reform advocate, some medicinal cannabis patients are having a hard time getting any kind of clear advice from state officials about the grow and possession limits for personal use. One such question regards whether or not the rights may be “stacked,” i.e., could the limits for a married couple be combined if one were a medicinal patient and one were a recreational user?

Currently, lawmakers are working on a bill to unify the differences in regulations, The Burlington Free Press says. The bill would impose requirements for locked containers during transport that currently apply to medical patients but not recreational consumers. It also provides clarification regarding providing cannabis to minors under 21, – because currently, the recreational law does not assure medical caregivers impunity for providing cannabis to their patients who may be under 21.

Legalization advocates are optimistic that a more comprehensive legalization act will be enacted in 2019 to establish a well-regulated marketplace and clarify language and intent. “…it’s the same damned cannabis either way,” said David Silberman, attorney and drug policy reform advocate from Middlebury.

Regardless of the confusion, legally possessing, cultivating, and using cannabis for recreational use begins in Vermont on July 1.

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