With the legalization of cannabis on track, Canadian governments and their public health officials are in a heated debate over how to regulate retail marijuana. The biggest question is whether or not it should be regulated like other forms of alcohol or tobacco.

Retail cannabis forum stirs debate over economic benefit, public health risks

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It has been authorized by the towns of Bennington, Burlington, and Brattleboro. Windsor, Strafford, and more than 20 other Vermont towns have done the same.

And, as Hartford Selectboard Vice Chair Joe Major predicts, Hartford voters will have to decide whether or not to accept it as well.

The “it” in this case is the retail sale of recreational marijuana, which was approved by the Vermont Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott in October 2022.

“There’s a good chance that Hartford will ask its voters on (Town Meeting Day) in March 2022 whether they want to opt in to allow cannabis sales in Hartford,” Major said during a town hall meeting Monday night at Hartford High School.

The meeting, which was co-hosted by the Selectboard and the Hartford Community Coalition, included a panel of local experts on the subject so that voters could “make an educated choice before going into the voting box,” according to Major.

The subject in Hartford, like the national battle over recreational cannabis legalization a few years ago — Vermont’s statute requires cities and towns to “opt in” for retail sales to be authorized inside their boundaries — is divisive and provokes passionate arguments for and against.

Even on the facts, however, there was scant consensus among the panel’s specialists.

Property values have dropped near dispensaries, and cannabis offers significant health hazards to children, according to claims that retail cannabis sales would help to reduce opioid addiction and promote the local economy, including employment for younger employees.

Perhaps more importantly, the present tax law does not sustain the assumption of increased tax income for Hartford. Hartford voters passed a 1% local option sales tax on rooms, meals, and alcohol five years ago, but it excludes other retail purchases, including marijuana.

However, supporters were certain that cannabis sales would continue to assist the local economy.

“It’s essentially the same discussion in every town: do we want a store?” David Silberman, a Middlebury attorney who was elected high bailiff of Addison County in 2020, is a strong advocate in the state promoting cannabis legalization.

“The business community in my town was generally in favor, especially the downtown retailers, who desire the foot traffic.”

He pointed out that regardless of if a municipality authorizes shop sales, a nearby community may do so, so “people are going to obtain cannabis one way or another.”

“I’d like it if they had it tested, branded, and quality guaranteed,” he added.

There are ancillary advantages to the local economy even if the municipality does not have a local option tax to collect cannabis money, according to Stephanie Waterman, owner of White River Growpro, which provides growing materials.

Waterman, who has owned her White River Junction company with her husband since 2014, said she is considering getting a “retail nursery license” and that legalizing cannabis offers “an chance for employment development in town, especially in recruiting young people, which is a concern in Vermont in general.”

Other cannabis-related employment, according to Waterman, will include “well-paying” roles in finance (since “there’s a lot of cash to deal with in these enterprises”), growing, lab testing, processing, and “budtenders.”

“According to the plan we were considering, it would create 25 new positions in the first few months and then develop from there,” she said.

“That’s a big deal.”

In the spring, the Vermont Cannabis Control Board, which was established to govern the state’s cannabis business, will accept applications to approve and license cannabis farmers, processors, testing laboratories, wholesalers, and retailers. Retailers, on the other hand, are last in line, with applications due in September and the first permits likely in October, according to the Control Board.

The benefits of legalizing local cannabis sales, on the other hand, were questioned by medical and social service experts, as well as several in the crowd, who questioned industry-supplied research and advocated for caution.

“When the (cannabis) business is the one showing you how it all works and guaranteeing you that as a municipality, you’ll earn money… “You have to realize that’s all speculative,” said Alan Budney, a professor of psychiatry and biomedical data science at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine who studies cannabis use disorder. “Your property values are going to go up, and you’re going to have high-paying jobs… you have to realize that’s all speculative.”

Some audience members burst in applause when Budney referred to retail cannabis outlets as “essentially a drug store” and emphasized the issue of the danger they represent to underage usage.

“You think the 22-year-olds aren’t going to attempt to sell it to the 18-year-olds, and 18-year-olds aren’t going to try to purchase it from the shop —” remarked Budney, who was stopped by audience members chanting “Whoa,” prompting the Selectboard’s Major to yell “Stop! Stop!” to the crowd.

Minors typically have their own ideas about cannabis, just as they do about alcohol and vaping, according to Janet Potter, a student assistance program counselor with Hartford schools, and individuals need to acknowledge the public duty that comes with greater access to cannabis.

“It doesn’t matter whether we have access to it or not. It’s about educating people about it, because right now I’m seeing youngsters claim that cannabis is a plant, not a drug. They’re saying cannabis isn’t hazardous, but rather beneficial. “It’s the equivalent of eating your vegetables,” Potter said.

“I mean, we’re going to need a lot of schooling.”

The audience was just as split as the panelists.

Miriam Wood of White River Junction, who has shown interest in opening a dispensary in Vermont, framed the question of legalizing sales as one that would result in more public safety rather than less.

“It’s critical to me that our streets are safe, and that this is done in a safe, polite, and timely way.” … The businesses will open in one location or another, and I am hoping to be able to open in Hartford. And I believe it would be beneficial to our community,” Wood said.

In the crowd, though, Hartford Selectboard member Lannie Collins said, “Show me the money.”

“I don’t see what the advantage is if we can’t earn money as a community from the sale of it — which is what the appeal is to this that I’ve seen,” Collins said.

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