Legal Weed in Vermont? Governor Announces Qualified Support - Ski Mag

Legal Weed in Vermont? Governor Announces Qualified Support

As skiers wait for snow, Legislature tackles burning issue.
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The après beer is so much a part of skiing. But which resort will be the first to feature a slopeside marijuana lounge?

That might still be hard to imagine, but another ski state, Vermont, may soon join Colorado and Washington in making the sale of pot legal.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin announced his qualified support for legalization in his State of the State address last week. And the state’s Legislature will take up the issue as it embarks on a new session.

A bill lawmakers will address would phase in legalization over two years. Beginning in July of this year, Vermonters age 21 and older would be allowed to grow weed and consume it legally in private settings. Legal sales in stores and smoking lounges would come a year later.

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Several legislators, like Shumlin, have signaled a new willingness to consider legalization, and there’s a feeling in the state that legalization isn’t a matter of if but when.

In a state heavily dependent on tourism, located within easy driving distance of major urban centers, it’s easy to imagine the economic benefits pot tourism. Beer lovers, for instance, already represent a healthy financial boon. And given the undeniable prevalence of weed consumption among skiers, legalization would seem to hold the potential for boosting skier visits in Vermont.

“Can you imagine Mad River-branded weed? ‘Smoke It if You Can’?” says Eric Friedman, the ever-candid communications director for Mad River Glen. “I’m having a field day with the possibilities.”

But Friedman opposes legalization. And he says that while the board of directors at shareholder-owned Mad River has discussed the matter, it will neither endorse nor oppose the measure.

“We’ve talked about it, and among Mad River skiers and Co-op members we have some people here that are really involved in lobbying for legalization. But from the Co-op’s perspective we don’t want to come out one way or the other. We have a really diverse community of skiers, from dirt-bag weed-smoking hippies to arch-conservatives, and we would never try to speak for all of them.”

Parker Riehle, head of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, says his members discussed the issue last month, but will take a neutral stance.

“There were factions for and against it,” Riehle says. “Clearly we’d want to stress to moms, in particular, who make a lot of the family vacation decisions, that they’re not going to walk into a cloud of pot smoke if they come to Vermont. On the other side of it, if we have a lot of loyal customers who want pot legalized, why go against it? And the thinking is that if anyone in the Northeast is going to do it, and that includes possibly Quebec, it’s better to get out ahead of it tourism-wise and be the first to offer that extra amenity.”

Riehle says his Statehouse sources are skeptical that legalization will pass this year. But proponents, he says, are stressing the potential benefits to the tourism industry. 

“Supporters are definitely playing the cannabis-tourism thing up big, playing off the microbrewery example. It’s possible that it’s the next new niche that plays into Vermont’s localvore, agriconomy thing.”

Vermont lawmakers will have the advantage of studying Colorado’s experience with legal pot sales. Tax revenues there amounted to almost $70 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year—far more than the $42 million generated by alcohol sales.

Friedman thinks legalization sends the wrong message to kids, and worries about the federal laws that force the industry to conduct its business in cash, without the benefits of banks.

“Given the volume of money, you’re just asking for trouble. It’s an invitation to organized crime. They need cash businesses [to launder illicit profits]. I’m from New Jersey, and cash businesses are a magnet for the mob.”

And as far as any economic boost, he thinks it’d be temporary. “Because Massachusetts and Maine are going to be next. It’s just like with civil unions”— Vermont’s first-the-nation gay and lesbian marriage-equivalent legislation. “Yeah, for a year or two you had people coming here to get married, but then as other states caught up that went away.”

Gov. Shumlin, whose announcement of support for “the right bill” represents a change of mind, called for a careful approach to legalization in his Jan. 7 address to state legislators:

“To do it right, we must do it deliberately, cautiously, step by step, and not all in one leap as we legislate the lessons learned from the states that went before us. I will insist on five things before I’ll sign a bill.

“First, a legal market must keep marijuana and other drugs out of the hands of underage kids. The current system doesn’t. Our new system must.

“Second, the tax imposed must be low enough to wipeout the black market and get rid of the illegal drug dealers.

“Third, revenue from legalization must be used to expand addiction prevention programs.

“Fourth, we must strengthen law enforcement’s capacity to improve our response to impaired drivers under the influence of marijuana who are already on Vermont’s roads.

“Fifth, take a hard lesson learned from other states and ban the sale of edibles until other states figure out how to do it right.

“I understand that the Senate will go first, and I look forward to working with [Senate leaders] to construct a sensible, cautious bill. We have a history of tackling difficult issues with respect and care, the Vermont way. I believe we have the capacity to take this next step and get marijuana legalization done right.”

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