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UPDATE: Voters to Decide in March on Retail Marijuana

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Montpelier residents on Town Meeting Day will vote up or down on whether to allow the sale of recreational marijuana to adults beginning in 2022. 

The City Council on Wednesday, Jan. 13, unanimously approved a ballot item for Town Meeting Day that reads: “Shall the City of Montpelier permit the operation of cannabis Retailers and Integrated Licensees which are licensed by the State of Vermont pursuant to Act 164 of 2020, subject to such municipal ordinance and regulation as the City Council may lawfully Adopt and implement”?

Under the law passed in the Legislature last fall, each town must vote to allow the sale of recreational marijuana before any individual licenses can be obtained. The “opt-in” vote, as opposed to an “opt-out” version, was a compromise between House and Senate negotiators that helped pass the long-discussed bill. Gov. Phil Scott allowed the bill to become law without his signature. Middlebury was the first community to set a Town Meeting Day vote.

Even though retail marijuana sales won’t begin until May 1, 20istrict 2 Councilor Conor Casey, who sponsored the ballot item, said it makes sense to find out early whether Montpelier residents support the idea. 

“The big issue is that I think we should do this early. Even though it’s in 2022 you wouldn’t want to put it on the ballot a year from now,” he said. “By deciding now we can take the time to go through zoning, have community discussion about how we want to do it and have transparency.”

The Council approved the request with little debate.

It is unclear how much revenue the sale of recreational pot would generate in Montpelier. Under the bill, a Cannabis Control Commission will be established to set the rules and regulations for an adult market. The governor has yet to submit his selection of the three-member commission to the Senate for confirmation. 

A 2015 study by the Rand Drug Policy Research Center estimated that Vermont could receive $20 million to $75 million in tax revenue, and perhaps much more, from a recreational pot market. Since then, retail sales have begun in nearby Massachusetts and Maine. 

Sen. Andrew Perchlik (P/D Washington), a Montpelier resident and a co-sponsor of Act 164, said he supports the ballot item.

“It could be good for the city,” he said.  “I’m from Colorado and have visited since they legalized cannabis sales (in 2014) and I haven’t seen any harm to the community. It could be good for the retail sector that has been hit hard by COVID.”

The Vermont bill calls for a 20 percent tax on retail marijuana sales, made up of a 14 percent excise tax and a 6 percent sales tax. Act 164 also mentions a mechanism for money to be shared with communities that choose to house a retail store but those details have not been worked out. During legislative debate, the figure of 2 percent was discussed but not agreed to.

The bill allows existing medical marijuana dispensaries to get the jump on recreational sales, allowing them to apply for a license and begin sales on May 1, 2022. New retail licensees can begin operation on Oct. 1, 2022. 

Montpelier has a medical dispensary under the auspices of the Vermont Patients Alliance but it is unclear whether it will apply for a recreational license. The dispensary did not reply to a request for comment.

Casey said the potential revenue from pot sales was an obvious factor in his decision to introduce the ballot item.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking at the revenue piece of this,” he said. “We have a $14 million budget, we have a huge hole here, and we’re very limited in what we can do to increase revenue to fill some of those gaps. So I think this is a good way to generate visitors and kind of jump start the economy again once we get past the pandemic. It deserves its day in court and I think Montpelier is a little more progressive when it comes to cannabis.”