Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan Comes Out in Support of Marijuana Legalization

Donovan said a regulated market for cannabis sales would create important consumer safety protections

After several years of starts and stops on legislative discussions of marijuana legalization in Vermont, there’s a new push in the Vermont Senate to regulate the legal sales of cannabis and cannabis products to any adult.

The move would be on top of sales to people already approved to buy cannabis specifically for medical use—from dispensaries that are currently in operation.

“We have to have a regulated market,” Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan said Thursday, announcing his support for S.54, the bill currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This is common sense.”

The bill would create a regulatory system for cannabis and cannabis products, and would okay retailers to open in 2021—a few years behind neighboring Massachusetts.

In a new stance from him, Donovan said having rules on the production, labeling, and sales of legal cannabis would mean important protections for consumers.

An estimated 80,000 Vermonters regularly use marijuana, according to a study a few years ago from the RAND Drug Policy Research Center that is often cited in discussions at the Vermont State House.

Donovan called out a possible contradiction in current Vermont law.

People are allowed to grow and possess small amounts of marijuana in the state, but without licensed retailers for nonmedical cannabis use, buyers are often forced to turn to the black market.

“People are going to going to say, ‘I can possess marijuana,’ and the next logical question is, ‘Well how do I obtain it?’” Donovan noted. “And when it’s going to be sold, absent regulations, that’s when you raise the risk of somebody getting hurt.”

While Donovan is the state’s top law enforcement officer, many in public safety remain opposed. As do many public health officials.

“It would be not only unacceptable but unconscionable, to have legislation that would create this kind of potential marketplace that would not at least make an effort, explicitly, to have a revenue stream going towards education and prevention,” Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine testified Wednesday, also before the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee.

Past attempts to tax and regulate marijuana sales have been met with roadblocks in the Vermont House of Representatives, where opponents have voiced concerns about how to implement prevention programs, as well as how to keep roadways safe.

Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, has repeatedly said he shares those concerns, and an administration spokesperson said Thursday that the governor still wants roadway safety to be a regular part of any discussions of expanding access to cannabis.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he is optimistic the bill to create a regulatory framework will get a fresh look by new members of the Vermont House.

“The House has turned over dramatically in the last two years,” Sears observed in an interview with necn. “My hope is they’ll look favorably on S.54, as a vehicle to bring Vermont forward.”

In response to Levine’s testimony Wednesday, Sears said Thursday that the Scott administration should have included money in its budget proposal for prevention measures—with an expectation that they could be funded by future tax revenues from cannabis sales.

Senators have more testimony and other work scheduled on the bill in the coming weeks.

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