Opt in or opt out?
The Waterbury Select Board wrestled with that question May 20, exploring whether the town should allow retail cannabis sales if and when a tax-and-regulate system is approved by state lawmakers and the governor.
The legislation lost steam and is dead for this year, but seems likely to be revived next year.
“We’re talking about this now, because if they do pass it next year, it could go into effect July 1, and that wouldn’t give us a lot of time as a town to react,” said Municipal Manager William Shepeluk.
There’s a conflict between House and Senate versions of the bill. On the House side, retail sale would be allowed with an affirmative vote of town residents. Under the Senate version, retail sales would be allowed unless a town adopted a ban.
The House bill would not allow a town to ban other aspects of cannabis commerce, such as growing, processing and extraction.
Board member Nathaniel Fish asked if retail marijuana would be allowed in places that currently sell beer, such as gas stations and supermarkets.
“That would be concerning for me if it was widely distributed,” Fish said.
Board chair Chris Viens expressed his opposition to retail sales of marijuana, and to cannabis in general.
“I’ve seen the impact of this with different people I have known in my lifetime. I think it ruins a person’s motivation and aspirations to want to do anything with their lives,” Viens said. “It’s another thing for society to be sidetracked by, just another reason for them not to pay attention to life. I’m probably stepping over a line here, but it’s not letting them reach their full potential.”
Viens also took issue with the idea that retail sales might be allowed unless residents voted to ban it, suggesting a town should have to opt in instead.
“Aren’t they saying that, either way, you have an option?” asked board member Mark Frier.
Viens, who works in construction, said cannabis is hurting his industry.
“This definition of recreation has become full time, and I hear in the construction world that this is becoming more and more acceptable,” Viens said.
Frier argued that any kind of impairment on the job is bad.
“You don’t want someone drinking a bottle of vodka and getting behind a piece of equipment, either,” said Frier, who expressed his support for retail marijuana sales.
“I think it should be taxed and regulated,” Frier said. “Vermont could own the entire distribution chain, which means jobs, and rural jobs.”
Board member Michael Bard also expressed support for retail sales.
“Call me a libertarian, but whether it’s marijuana or it’s booze, it’s all about personable responsibility and the judgments they make,” Bard said. “The people who use it responsibly, I have no problem with. Retail gets people off the corners buying.”
Viens asked if retail could ever beat the black market.
“Depends on the tax rate,” Frier said.
“I guess I stand alone on how I feel about this,” Viens said. “Out of 100 people, 80 might use it responsibly, but 20 won’t, and those 20 are the ones who will impact everyone.”
No matter what ends up happening at the Statehouse, town officials have plenty of time to react. Even if a bill passes next year and goes into effect July 1, the legislation calls for retail to start no earlier than 2022, giving state officials time to iron out how the retail system would work.