South Burlington voters might see some green on next year’s Town Meeting Day ballot.
The city economic development committee launched discussions on whether to opt-in to recreational cannabis sales in South Burlington at a meeting March 29 where Shayne Lynn, executive director of Champlain Valley Dispensary, made his case to get the language on the ballot.
“It’s not the Hollywood movie, Cheech and Chong — it’s a more sophisticated environment,” Lynn said.
While many argue the legalization of retail cannabis will make communities safer and more equitable, some unanswered questions still exist around regulation and driving safety.
‘The more information, the better’
In October 2020, a bill to legalize and regulate recreational cannabis sales became law without Gov. Phil Scott’s signature, a few years after the state legalized the possession and cultivation.
“It almost seemed backwards to decriminalize it but not have a lawful place to purchase it,” reflected South Burlington police chief Shawn Burke.
From a public safety perspective, the only thing he suggests keeping an eye on, should the city pose the cannabis question to voters, is impaired driving — assuming people drive while high as often as they do while drunk, he said, which is frequent.
At the moment, blood tests are used to check if a person has marijuana in their system, but since THC — the chemical in cannabis — can stick around the body for multiple days, it is not always an accurate roadside test.
“In some ways we haven’t really evolved roadside testing for folks to a point where we might have wished we had,” said Burke. Instead, he said roadside impairment screenings will rely heavily on sobriety exercises and clues from physical indicators.
Still, if someone is pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, they do not have to take a breathalyzer test to be charged with a crime, he noted.
“Whether alcohol or drugs, what it comes down to is an officer’s assessment,” said Burke.
Ari Kirshenbaum, a professor of psychology at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, is building an app that he hopes will help increase road safety as legal cannabis becomes more prevalent across the country and the Green Mountain State grows more grass of its own.
The app, called Indicator, will capture data about the effects of cannabis for an individual: how long it takes for certain amounts of THC to set in, how long it takes to leave the system, what kinds of symptoms to expect, etc. Users will be able to measure and record how they’re affected by different cannabis products.
“The more information, the better,” said Kirshenbaum, who launched the idea with partners, partly in the hopes of increasing public safety. “Cannabis has been legalized across the country but there isn’t available information like they have for alcohol — say, one beer an hour keeps you under the legal limit. We don’t have that for cannabis.”
Burke noted that South Burlington has a higher prevalence of underage drinking than of underage marijuana use. Similar to Kirshenbaum, Burke thinks it’s important that voters do their research and examine how neighboring states with legal recreational cannabis have handled their markets.
“Alcohol creates and leads to far more crime,” added Sarah George, Chittenden County state’s attorney and a South Burlington resident, who has supported the decriminalization of cannabis in Vermont for years. She argues that legalization and regulation of recreational cannabis will make communities and the product safer.
“It does far more good in people’s lives than bad,” she said, from curbing insomnia and migraines, to easing anxiety and depression. “A lot of people think of it as ‘reefer madness,’ but there are also many medical benefits.”
Not to mention the equity benefits that decriminalizing cannabis could have for Vermonters of color, who are disproportionately represented in the national prison system.
“Marijuana is over-policed and over-prosecuted,” George said, creating ripple effects which further deteriorate opportunities for housing, jobs, child custody, education and more. “One small arrest can have collateral consequences for years.”
A 2020 report published by the ACLU found that, in 2018, Black people in Vermont were 6.1 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people.
The report also found that the state ranked sixth in the nation for largest racial disparities in marijuana possession, though the authors noted that much has changed in the state, in light of decriminalization efforts, and more data is needed to analyze recent trends.
A current bill in the Vermont Senate, requiring towns to pose the opt-in question for cannabis sales no later than Town Meeting Day 2022, would also require the state’s cannabis control board to consider reducing license fees for people who have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition in the past, such as people of color.
Bills, bills, bills
The South Burlington economic development committee heard the business perspective from Lynn, who described cannabis as “a growth industry throughout America” with an abundance of economic opportunity.
John Wilking, economic development committee member, noted the substantial revenue the city could rake in through local option tax funds, should a cannabis business open up.
“This is a tax-raising function that could raise $100,000 to $200,000 a year from a single retail location,” he said. “That’s pretty hard to ignore.”
A slow government roll-out of the cannabis control board (Scott nominated applicants for the board three months past deadline), and of the succeeding regulations has made it difficult to plan. Lynn said he is hopeful South Burlington will get the ball rolling, so he can move forward. He is poaching possible retail locations in South Burlington including a spot near Al’s French Frys on Williston Road.
“Cannabis is already here and probably will be surrounding South Burlington,” he said.
The South Burlington Business Association stated they will not have an official position on retail cannabis until the city clarifies what the financial impact will be.
Many municipalities voted last March to opt-in to recreational cannabis sales come 2022, including Bennington, Brattleboro, Burlington, Winooski, Danville, Sutton, Burke and Barton. Voters in Richmond, Newport and Lyndon remained dubious of doobies, voting against the measure.