Cannabis Control Board seeks a Vermont marijuana market ‘rooted in equity’

Appointees to the Cannabis Control Board James Pepper (left), Julie Hulburd (center) and Kyle Harris.

The newly appointed panel charged with regulating Vermont’s marijuana industry will prioritize equity as it stands up the state’s budding pot market, its members said at their first meeting.

The three-person Cannabis Control Board, which was appointed in March, has its work cut out in the coming months. 

Under a bill that became law last year, marijuana retail shops can open in Vermont as soon as October 2022. 

By then, the control board must establish rules for new cannabis businesses including retailers, growers and testing facilities. Eventually, it will determine who receives licenses to set up shop. 

Ahead of next year’s legislative session, the board must come up with recommendations on how fees should be assessed in the marijuana industry and who should qualify for financial assistance to help open businesses in the new marketplace. 

Laying out his goals during the virtual meeting Thursday, control board Chair James Pepper said he hopes to establish a diverse and equitable cannabis marketplace that “builds upon Vermont’s competitive advantages, and can sustain and thrive in an eventual transition to federal legalization.”

He wants the state to maintain a “sustainable revenue stream dedicated to correcting the second and third order effects of prohibition and economically empowering those most directly impacted by the war on drugs,” he said.

A bill that passed during this year’s legislative session — and that’s expected to be signed by Gov. Phil Scott in the coming days — aims to help people of color and others harmed by past marijuana laws to open businesses in the new marijuana market. 

The bill would task state officials with designing a system to provide loans and grants to “social equity applicants,” or people who were disproportionately hurt by marijuana criminalization and want to enter the new market. The loans and grants would be funded by a new “Cannabis Business Development” fund created by the legislation. 

In consultation with Xusana Davis, Vermont’s executive director of racial equity, the control board will propose social equity criteria for lawmakers to consider next year. 

Davis, who attended the board’s first meeting last week, said that in contemplating who might qualify as a social equity applicant, “the obvious consideration is something like race or ethnicity.” 

“But there are so many identities and so many circumstances that really warrant consideration,” Davis said, pointing to sex, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, and poverty level.

“It really depends on how broad you want to go, right? For example, we haven’t historically considered people with low or no academic attainment as a historically marginalized group, but maybe we should, right?” Davis said. 

As the board strives toward improving equity in the cannabis industry, Davis said it should also receive input from people already operating in the state’s illicit marijuana market. 

“These are people who know the industry and the market. So, I would think that seeking their opinions is also super important, and you are necessarily going to capture historically marginalized people in that cohort,” Davis said. 

She also said Vermont could look to California and Illinois whose legal cannabis programs have been “very explicitly focused on equity.” 

Kyle Harris, who sits on the control board, said the new cannabis market “needs to be rooted in equity” and “needs to pay close and special attention” to small marijuana cultivators in the state.

This year, small marijuana cultivators asked the Legislature to implement stronger protections to ensure small-scale cannabis growers have a piece of the state’s fledgling legal market. But lawmakers declined to add agricultural provisions to this year’s marijuana bill, S.25. That leaves it up to the control board, which is charged with developing rules for marijuana farmers, to consider making the changes. 

“If we can take Vermont and the cannabis program here and turn it into the gold standard for other rural states that are looking to adopt a similar type of program, that’s where I’ll find success and hang my hat,” Harris said. 

Julie Hulburd, another member of the board, said that the panel has a “historic responsibility to build a foundation for which inclusive and restorative practices are the cornerstone” of the cannabis industry. 

“So as our brave little state, and I should say, our brave little board of three, dives into this work, I acknowledge that we have quite the road ahead of us and there’s much work to be done,” Hulburd said.

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