Vermont’s Cannabis Conundrum

Words // Keith Morrill
Design // Ali Leach

There is no denying that interest in and debate about legalizing marijuana in Vermont is growing. So what’s the hold-up? As the home of Ben & Jerry’s, Phish, and Groovy Uvy, and as a state interested in leading the charge on so many progressive social issues, it seems that Vermont would be eager to legalize.

In truth, a cannabis economy already exists in Vermont. The 2015 RAND report, an intensive study into the potential consequences of legalization in Vermont, uncovered some interesting statistics. In 2014 Vermonters consumed between 33,000 and 55,000 pounds of marijuana, spending between $125 and $225 million. It turns out that more than half of Vermont adults have smoked before, and more than 12 percent having smoked in the last year. The trick comes in figuring out how to bring that shadow economy into the light of day.

If legalization were to move forward, what might a cannabis economy in Vermont look like? To help answer that question, a number of Vermonters, some very prominent in the business community, came together in January 2015 and formed the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative (VTCC). The group spent the year traveling the state, holding so-called Cannabis Conversations with Vermonters, meeting with Vermont lawmakers, and bringing in experts from Colorado, California, and Oregon — states that have legalized or are moving toward legalization — in an effort to learn from their experiences.

The group held a press conference in Burlington to coincide with the release of their report, What Cannabis Can Do for Vermont, a detailed account of their findings and conclusions drawn from their year of explorations and discussions on Nov. 18. The report is intended to provide a comprehensive structure for lawmakers to move forward with legalization.

The VTCC report envisions an industry where home, craft, and industrial growers produce an adequate market supply, creating an industry supported by co-ops, testing, and research, and which gives rise to rich job opportunities and profitable business ventures for Vermonters.
The group sees legalization as a potential solution to some problems currently plaguing the state, arguing, in particular, that ending prohibition would create exciting jobs opportunities for millennials, perhaps reversing the flow of their out-of-state exodus in pursuit of careers. 
Furthermore, it could grant current Vermont farmers access to a high-margin crop that would help sustain their way of life.

Yet VTCC would like to see Vermont avoid the missteps and mistakes that other states have made. While they acknowledge that risks are involved in legalization, they say those can be counteracted by keeping Vermonters involved in the conversation and by enacting smart legislation. In particular, VTCC says it is essential that legalization reflects Vermont values, an our-way-or-the-high-way approach that applies the same level of integrity that Vermont has bought to the organic- and local-food movements.

In this way, Vermont could emerge as a leader in an industry that is still is in its infancy and still sorting itself out, positioning itself to shape the industry rather than wait to be shaped by those that came before.