By Katy Savage
Woodstock is among 40 towns that will ask voters if they want to allow cannabis dispensaries on Town Meeting Day — it’s unclear if the voter will approve it or not. A survey by Woodstock residents last April found the town was split.
“It’s pretty up in the air,” said Victoria Littlefield, who chairs the Woodstock Cannabis Review Committee.
Littlefield said one issue among voters is local compensation. Woodstock voters will also be asked to establish a 1% sales option tax so the town and village can reap benefits from the sales. The money would go to capital expenditures.
“The only way towns can get tax revenue directly through retail cannabis is through the 1% local option tax,” Littlefield said.
Woodstock already has a meal and rooms option tax, but many retailers have previously balked at a sales tax since the town competes for business with tax-free New Hampshire.
It’s been legal for Vermonters 21 and older to possess less than an ounce of marijuana since 2018, but there are limitations. Possessing one to two ounces is a misdemeanor with fines ranging between $500 and $2,000. Possessing more than two ounces of marijuana is a felony, with possible jail time. Cannabis can only be consumed in private areas and crossing state lines with any amount of cannabis is a federal crime. State rules regarding cannabis retail sales are still in flux. Under Act 164 in 2020, which allowed cannabis retail shops, cities must vote by Australian ballot to opt in to allow retail cannabis operations. Towns can also opt to establish a local cannabis control board. If they don’t, cannabis retailers would defer to the state board for rules and regulations.
Under current regulations, retail stores can’t be located within 500 feet of a school, but other than that, towns have no local control over the location of cannabis shops. Towns are not able to establish zoning specifically for cannabis dispensaries or create special rules that apply only for cannabis retailers. Meanwhile, for retailers, the costs of getting licenses are hefty. Licensing requires background checks, security measures and annual licensing fees of up to $10,000 plus $50 annually for each type of cannabis that’s sold and $50 for each employee. Locally, municipalities are only allowed to charge $100 for a licensing fee. There are concerns in Woodstock that it will likely cost more than that to process applications.
“If we pass retail cannabis, we may be losing money,” Woodstock Trustees vice chair Seton McIlory said in an informational session. “We would like to have the flexibility to increase that.”
Despite lack of local control, the six-member Woodstock Cannabis Review Committee has done extensive research and pointed to the possibility of cannabis bringing jobs and tourists to the area. A Forbes article found about 18% of Americans travel for a cannabis experience and 44% of millennials are looking for a cannabis experience on their vacations. The number of states with legalized marijuana is growing nationally.
Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota legalized marijuana in 2020. In Vermont, more than 25 towns approved cannabis retail shops last year, including Bennington, Brandon, Middlebury, Burlington, Brattleboro, Montpelier, Stratford, Waterbury, Winooski and Windsor.
Rutland voters will also be asked to establish a cannabis retail shop after the Board of Aldermen voted to put it on the ballot. Rutland Mayor David Allaire said the article is likely to pass. There has already been interest from entrepreneurs in the city. “This is something that’s coming our way and we want to be prepared for it,” Allaire said.
Additonally, Hartford, Springfield, Castleton, Fair Haven, Mt Holly, Pittsford, Poultney, Proctor, Putney, Rutland Town, are also voting on cannabis retail this year, but the issue hasn’t been without controversy in some areas. Ludlow rejected a retail cannabis article during a special election on Jan. 11 with a 249-204 vote after earlier defeating cannabis 179-162 in November. Ludlow won’t be able to vote again on the issue for another year.
The state Cannabis Control Board will begin issuing retail licenses in October while existing medical marijuana dispensaries can begin selling recreational marijuana this May. The Woodstock Village is voting on the same article at a separate meeting in March.