Vermont Legislature Approves Bill Legalizing Recreational Cannabis

The Vermont Legislature approved a bill Tuesday that would legalize recreational cannabis possession and purchase in amounts of less than one ounce for people who are age 21 or older. It is unclear if Vermont Governor Phil Scott will sign this bill into law, but if signed, the law would have an effective date of October 1, 2020.

The law provides for the purchase and possession, but not public consumption, of recreational cannabis and allows for municipalities to develop rules for establishing and administering licenses approving retail establishments offering the sale of recreational cannabis goods. While a local government approves all regulations concerning retail establishments within town borders, under the proposed framework, the government may not outright “prohibit the operation of a cannabis establishment within the municipality through an ordinance…or a bylaw.” Any person receiving a license to run a retail recreational cannabis establishment must complete a training program every two years that “shall include information about the health effects of the use of cannabis and cannabis products.” All recreational retail sales are taxed at 14%, collected in addition to the state sales tax of 6%. Proceeds from the recreational cannabis tax would go to form a state trust fund that provides for after-school and summer programs for students in low-income areas of Vermont.

The law prohibits the sale of recreational items that contain cannabis flower with more than 30% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or other concentrates that contain more than 60% THC. Additionally, recreational cannabis products cannot be flavored, combined with nicotine or alcohol, nor can the cannabis products utilize packaging “designed to make the product more appealing to persons under 21 years of age.” Under the law, a retail provider of recreational cannabis products may only sell in one transaction to one person the equivalent of one ounce of cannabis, with the buyer always being required to show government identification. The law provides that a person purchasing cannabis for medicinal use may buy up to two ounces at a time. Finally, cannabis purchased to treat medical issues may be purchased without the addition of the 14% tax.

The law also decriminalized numerous activities associated with the possession or sale of small amounts of cannabis. For example, the law allows a person 21 years of age or older to sell one ounce or less of cannabis to another person who is 21 years of age or older as long as the sale “is not advertised or promoted to the public.” Additionally, a person under the age of 21 who possesses less than two ounces of cannabis receives only a civil penalty, but never any criminal consequences. This lack of criminality also applies to any person over 21 years of age who possesses more than one ounce, but less than two ounces of cannabis with any person engaging in said violation only experiencing gradient fines of up to $500. Finally, the bill mandates that all persons prior to the bill’s effective date who have a criminal record as a result of possessing one ounce or less of cannabis are to receive an automatic expungement of said criminal record by January 1, 2022. 

Six senators opposed the bill, with state Sen. Richard McCormack (D) stating that he voted against the bill because “some people of color say this bill has unintended de facto racial implications. As a privileged old white man, I’m not prepared to declare them wrong.” If passed, the legislature’s fiscal impact report claimed that recreational cannabis retail sales would increase tax revenue by up to $12,000,000 per year by 2025.