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Heady Vermont hosted a celebration of the new marijuana law — nicknamed “Weedstock”— in Johnson in July. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

The Vermont Democratic Party has formally declared its support for a statewide system to tax and regulate marijuana sales, voting over the weekend to adopt the policy into its official platform.

The party’s embrace of cannabis taxation and regulation comes after recreational use of the drug became legal in July, and represents a significant shift from where the party stood on marijuana policy even just two years ago.

In 2016, the Vermont Democratic Party’s platform stated that it supported “the exploration of the decriminalization of drug use and instead treating it as a health and mental health issue.”

But on Sunday evening, members of the party’s platform committee, which updates the platform every two years, unanimously voted to change the language.

It now states that the Democratic Party, which hopes to secure a veto-proof majority in the Legislature for the next two years, believes marijuana “should be legal, taxed and regulated in the interests of consumer and public safety, as well as economic opportunity.”

Sen. Dick Sears
Sen. Dick Sears. Photo by Michael Dougherty/VTDigger

“This has been something that Democrats in our state have been passionate about, so this is our way of formalizing that position,” Christopher Di Mezzo, the party’s spokesperson said.

The party’s decision to revamp its platform comes as many cannabis advocates and Democrats are hoping momentum from recreational marijuana legalization will translate into swift passage of tax and regulate policy in the upcoming legislative session.

The marijuana legalization law that passed the Legislature and became law this year does not allow for retail sale.

In the Senate, lawmakers have had little trouble advancing measures to tax and regulate marijuana, in addition to legalizing it.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that has crafted that legislation, said senators have passed five tax and regulate bills since 2016.

“It’s important to have a standardized product that isn’t part of the black market and it’s also important in terms of the revenue to help us deal with some of the other problems in this state,” he said.

But these measures have struggled to gain traction in the House. Most recently, members voted to strike down an attempt to revive a tax and regulate law in April, at the end of the last legislative session.

Democratic leadership opposed the move at the time because the proposal would not have had time to go through the committee process.

In 2017, Rep. Sam Young, D-Glover, proposed a tax and regulate bill in the House which died in committee.

SAM YOUNG
Rep. Sam Young, D-Glover.

“There was just never the appetite on the House side to do a full regulated market,” he said. “The honest answer is we didn’t have the votes.”

Young said many House Democrats have been reluctant to embrace tax and regulate policy, and that it’s unlikely that the Democratic Party’s platform shift will convince them to come around on the issue.

“I think that it’s a good step. I think that people’s opinions on the matter are pretty set. I don’t expect certain Democratic members who have always been against it to change their minds,” Young said.

However, he said that with several new Democrats likely to replace outgoing members after the November elections, and recreational legalization already on the books, the odds for passage are better than before.

Some Republicans who had opposed recreational marijuana are also on board with taxing and regulating the substance, now that it’s been legalized.

“I think it’s got a better shot than it had in the past. I think we’ll be really close,” Young said of the prospects for full legalization in 2019.

Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, has been reluctant to support a tax and regulate system. She could not be reached for comment Monday.

Gov. Phil Scott has said that he would not support legislation to create a system to tax and regulate marijuana, unless the state takes additional steps to prepare for the legal change, such as bolstering substance abuse prevention education initiatives and curtailing roadway impairment.

In 2017, through an executive order, Scott established an Advisory Commission on Marijuana tasked with, in part, envisioning what a tax and regulate system would look like in Vermont. A report is due by the end of the year.