A retail case at a cannabis dispensary in Nevada. Source: Julia Ritchey, NCPR

Vermont just passed legislation that will set up a marketplace for residents to purchase recreational cannabis. This comes several years after it first legalized the drug and follows other states in the Northeast, including Maine and Massachusetts, who have set up their own tax and distribution systems.

NCPR spoke with Vermont Public Radio senior reporter John Dillon about how the law will work and what New Yorkers should know about it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julia RitcheyWhat New Yorkers should know about Vermont’s new cannabis marketplace

RITCHEY: Recreational cannabis has been legal in Vermont for about two years, but there was no way to buy it. So can you explain how and why that happened in that way? 

DILLON:  Vermont’s not what you call a referendum state. We can’t pass laws by a public vote like Maine, for example. So any change to these statutes had to be done by the legislature, and they approached it very cautiously and incrementally.

So we had this somewhat strange situation where they tried to get a legal tax-and-regulate system through about two years ago, but that didn’t happen. So the compromise that they agreed to was it was OK to possess up to an ounce. You could grow mature plants. I think up to three. But you couldn’t sell it. You could give it away, but you couldn’t sell it. And then finally, the momentum built up both with the House speaker who had been sort of holding out on this and the governor to the point where we saw the bill pass this year. 

RITCHEY: And what do the mechanics of this legislation do exactly? 

DILLON: Well, it sets up a tax-and-regulate system for legal cannabis. And actually, the name has been changed from marijuana to cannabis in the law. …Overseeing all of that under the statute is a new cannabis control board, which starts meeting in January. And they’ll set up all the rules.

It’ll be a while yet before this happens. Sales at dispensaries that now do medical marijuana will take place as early as the spring of 2022. And then I think the legal shops can set up by the fall.

It also sets up, along with the regulation part, there’s the tax part. So it sets up a taxing system and directs how that money should go. 

RITCHEY:  You mentioned there was momentum building, but I’m wondering if there was a primary motivating factor specifically with the pandemic going on. Was there a revenue concern? 

DILLON: Well, the revenue was always a nice piece that people talked about. But if you listen to the sponsors, they basically say, listen, Vermont has one of the highest per capita uses of cannabis in the country. Everybody’s using it or a lot of people are using it. They’re all in this legal limbo, potentially, even though decriminalization of small amounts already happened.

You know, if people are using it, if it’s so widespread, let’s set up a system that at least gets some financial reward for the state out of it, and then can control the quality of the product and set up how it’s used — and perhaps do better enforcement of impaired driving also. 

RITCHEY: There’s a companion piece of legislation that addresses disparities in the criminal justice system. What does that piece do? 

DILLON: This was really pushed by criminal justice, social justice activists and their supporters in the legislature. And basically because the war on drugs has had a greater impact on people of color, what this says is that if you’ve been convicted of possession of two ounces or less, your record is automatically expunged. You don’t even have to apply to the court. It’s just wiped out, including the arrest record from any record kept by the state of Vermont. So I think there’s estimates that would be up to 10,000 cases wiped clean from the books. 

RITCHEY: And what do you think the impact will be for neighboring states like New York, where recreational has been talked about for many years but still has not made its way through the legislature? Do you see this being sort of a tourism draw potentially? 

DILLON: I mean, a big argument in favor of this is that people were driving to Massachusetts. Not only were we losing that revenue, but we were we weren’t providing that business in state. 

So I can see where people would come over, you know, into Bennington County, for example, across the lake, to patronize Vermont shops. New Yorkers will have to remember … that it still would be illegal to bring it into their state.

You know, if you’re coming from Colorado, for example, to other states like Kansas, so they’d have to be concerned about that. And it’s illegal to consume in the car, for example. So all of those things. They’re not going to check your ID at these stores to make sure you’re a Vermont resident. I’m sure anybody can buy it just like they can in Massachusetts. But, you know, the local laws still apply.

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