It seems an age ago that the Vermont Legislature was in the throes of the debate to establish a tax and regulate system for the sale of marijuana. Two years ago, Vermont legalized the possession and personal use of small amounts of pot, but setting up a commercial marketplace has been more difficult than first imagined, particularly for a state as liberal as Vermont and one that has a lot of pot smokers.

It’s as if the support is not as deep or as broad as once thought.

The stalemate continues. This week House and Senate conferees failed to bridge the differences between their respective bills, which includes issues of tax rates, how the revenue would be spent, and issues of enforcement.

Of particular note were issues regarding seatbelts and racial equity. The House is pushing a provision that would allow law enforcement to pull people over if a car’s occupants were not buckled up. Meanwhile a coalition of advocacy groups are asking that the bills be rewritten so that local agriculture would benefit, not out-of-state businesses, and that racial minorities be compensated for the harm inflicted by the nation’s war on drugs. The coalition also asks that criminal records for anyone incarcerated for marijuana offense be automatically expunged.

It’s routine that “must pass” bills become the target of legislators who want to attach their own pet projects to something they think will pass. That explains the move by House conferees to attach the seatbelt issue to the pot bill. One doesn’t have much to do with the other, but the House doesn’t have an alternative that is as appealing.

But it’s a non-starter for Senate conferees, and for the governor. If a bill is to ever make it to the governor’s desk, it’s difficult to see how it prevails with the seatbelt component included.

More interesting is the collection of farm and racial groups opposed to the bill as written. Their objection, in the main, is an issue of equity. They’ve watched as other states have set up their commercial sales; the takeaway being that it’s a market easily overtaken by large national players.

Their question is why? Given the tenuous nature of agriculture in Vermont, why would we forfeit the opportunity to profit locally?

Fair question. Why would we? Why would we not elect to take care of our own?

Then, there is the question of racial equity. The coalition points out the obvious, which is that people of color have been harmed by the war on drugs more so than whites. If we are to reap a bounty through commercial sales, then those who were disproportionately harmed should be made whole. The revenue should not go the well-heeled. Again.

The reparations argument is one that might not have been heard a year ago; today, it is. It’s also a fair question, why allow issues of inequity to ferment when there is a meaningful way to disburse resources to those most at risk?

The fate of the legislation is anyone’s guess. No one has guessed correctly thus far. A little thing called the pandemic has made it even less predictable.

by Emerson Lynn

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