March Vote to Decide on Retail Cannabis in Essex
by Irene Wrenner
February 5, 2022
Burlington and Winooski voters approved the retail sale of cannabis in their cities last November. Richmond voters said “No.”
Now, it’s up to Essex voters to decide if they want cannabis — the drug formerly known as marijuana — to be sold in brick and mortar businesses in the town, including the village.
The issue on the March 1st ballot is NOT legalization. Cannabis use for medicinal purposes has been legal since 2004 in Vermont. Growth and possession of small amounts of recreational cannabis were decriminalized in 2018.
Since then, more adults and youth are accessing cannabis. Nearly 20% of Vermont residents use recreational cannabis on a monthly basis, according to VT Department of Health’s August 2021 Marijuana Use Report.
Vermonters aged 12 to 25 years reported the highest use in the country according to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ 2018-2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
On the upcoming ballot is a question of whether Essex will allow dispensaries of recreational cannabis beginning in October 2022. This is the only opportunity for voters to indicate whether they are willing to live with retail cannabis (RC).
Depending on whom you ask, RC sales would increase transparency and tax revenue or would harm users and non-users alike, especially children and young adults.
Dr. Catherine Antley, a Burlington dermatopathologist, expressed deep concerns about RC in a VTDigger commentary in which she asserted that the costs of RC will greatly exceed any RC tax revenues.
On Town Meeting TV last February, she cited studies of the effects of cannabis on youth, whose brain development and emotional well-being are reportedly harmed, especially as more potent strains of cannabis have proliferated. (Links to those studies.)
“In the commercialized states,” Antley said, “kids are getting this high-potency THC [the chemical responsible for most of cannabis’ psychoactive effects] much more than kids in non-commercialized states… [It] is particularly dangerous for the psychosis, anxiety, depression, suicidality – all the really scary mental health issues.”
Another study concluded, she said, that “the more marijuana shops in your neighborhood, the more likely your child is to use and to become addicted.”
Physicians’ groups across the US have published clear recommendations about legalized sales.
The Vermont Medical Society “strongly opposes the advertising, marketing and promotion of cannabis in the state of Vermont (including through the use of packaging, flavorings and placement/density of retail locations).”
Speaking with the Retorter, Essex Police Chief Ron Hoague noted that his concerns with RC are the same as with decriminalization: negative health impacts, impaired driving, the black market and drug violence.
Changes in the law and greater social acceptance have led to more cannabis use, according to the chief. He predicted that opting in to RC would lead to still greater use.
As a Drug Recognition Expert, he is trained to identify impairment in drivers. VTRANS data show that the number of fatal crashes involving drivers who tested positive for THC was greater in 2021 than in prior years.
When asked if retail cannabis would be different from retail alcohol, Hoague replied, “I don’t think it will be anything different. We’re acknowledging that alcohol is also a problem and that we’re simply going to add on to it by allowing RC.”
In fact, some of the potential state tax revenue on RC would be earmarked for cannabis education.
However, no additional tax revenue is expected to flow directly to the Town of Essex from RC sales.
Tax revenue may be a motivating factor for the State of Vermont to allow towns to vote on opting in to RC. (Massachusetts’ cannabis tax revenue for the current fiscal year is already outpacing that of its alcohol tax revenue.)
The chief was clear that he’s not taking a position on the ballot issue.
The Retorter also spoke with Meredith Mann, owner of Magic Mann, a café that sells confections containing CBD [a non–psychoactive derivative of the cannabis plant]. Magic Mann opened a year ago in the Essex Experience shopping center.
Mann, whose business promotes “chemistry and craft,” is eager to see RC pass. “It’s time to normalize it. It’s really no different than alcohol. I really believe [regulated retail establishments] will help keep our kids safe.”
According to Mann, a knowledgeable, licensed provider of retail THC products would provide information about the origin, purity and dosage to customers in well-labeled, childproof packaging. “On the streets, you don’t know what you’ll get.”
Mann said that she is passionate about keeping children, like her own, safe from harmful substances. She added that talking with parents about how to keep THC away from youth is important. “We want to make sure our community is safe.”
Mann has been working with the State Cannabis Control Board as it finalizes its rules around RC. She has spoken to local law enforcement as well. If RC passes, shops like hers would be reconfigured to increase security and rigorously limit access to those with proper ID.
“We want to educate and engage with the community.” To that end, Magic Mann will be reaching out to promote RC in the weeks ahead. According to her website, lawn signs have been ordered.
“The first thing that we’ll be able to do, if there is a yes vote, is hire staff and train them.”