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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Vermont Gears Up for a $225 Million Marijuana Market

Posted By on Tue, Oct 19, 2021 at 8:31 PM

  • Luke Eastman
Vermont’s Cannabis Control Board estimates that spending on recreational marijuana in Vermont could reach $225 million annually by 2025, which would translate to nearly $46 million in new state taxes.

The figures are just some of the news from a highly anticipated report the board released last Friday. The 64-page document lays the groundwork for state regulation of a legal market starting next year. The board is proposing rules and fees, subject to legislative approval, for those who will grow, process, test and sell the weed.

The report was filed to several House and Senate committees that may hear testimony in the next several weeks, before the full legislature reconvenes in January, said James Pepper, chair of the Cannabis Control Board.
There’s a reason to hurry: The rules must be in place in time for Vermont’s medical marijuana dispensaries to begin selling recreational pot by the May time frame established in previous legislation. That’s also when small growers, defined as operations with 1,000 square feet or less, could get their licenses and start planting.

“Whatever happens in the legislature, we need them to pass our fee bill pretty quickly,” Pepper said. “They have to deal with it sooner or later if they want us to be on time for that May 1 deadline.”

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Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Canadian Company Acquires Two Vermont Dispensaries in $25 Million Deal

Posted By on Tue, Jun 29, 2021 at 5:05 PM

Trimming plants at Champlain Valley Dispensary - FILE: LEE KROHN
  • File: Lee krohn
  • Trimming plants at Champlain Valley Dispensary
CeresMED, which owns medical cannabis vendors Champlain Valley Dispensary and Southern Vermont Wellness, will merge with the Toronto-based company Slang Worldwide in a $25 million deal. The transaction will provide CeresMED with an infusion of capital as it prepares to enter the recreational market next year.

“It's been a long road to get here, and we’re super excited to have found someone who aligns with our values and how we see ourselves in the bigger industry, and who can capitalize us,” said Bridget Conry, director of brand experience for CeresMED. “It's been really hard to finance our growth.”

Slang, a publicly traded company that buys and sells licenses for cannabis edibles and accessories, has distributed some of its own brands through CeresMED’s dispensaries since 2015; because federal law prohibits the interstate sale of cannabis, explained Conry, CeresMED purchases the formulas and manufacturing equipment from Slang, then assembles the products in its own facilities.

The merger will underwrite a 50,000-square-foot expansion of CeresMED’s Milton headquarters and eventually allow the company to hire up to 50 more employees, said Conry, effectively doubling its size. The acquisition will also open new markets for CeresMED’s Vermont-manufactured CBD products in 12 other states, including Oregon and Colorado, where Slang owns distribution channels.

“This is an opportunity for Vermont brands, especially women and BIPOC-owned brands, to get that exposure and possibly be able to link up to those supply chains, as well,” said Conry.

With the sale of CeresMED, all three of Vermont’s medical cannabis license holders will be owned by out-of-state conglomerates. Under S.54, the bill passed by the Vermont legislature last year that legalized the sale of recreational marijuana, medical cannabis license holders can begin selling for recreational use in May 2022, five months earlier than the October 2022 start date for other Vermont retailers. Given the added advantages of corporate investment, some cannabis advocates are concerned that Vermont’s recreational market has already been stacked against small independent producers.

“This kind of consolidation isn’t a surprise, unfortunately, but it’s happening even sooner than we anticipated,” said Geoffrey Pizzutillo, executive director of the Vermont Growers Association.

In other states that have legalized recreational use, he said, retailers who operate under large corporate umbrellas can afford to set artificially low prices to gain advantage over their competitors. The Vermont Growers Association has been advocating for municipalities to ensure greater equity in the cannabis marketplace, Pizzutillo said; several towns, including Burlington, adopted policies on Town Meeting Day that eliminate the five-month head start for medical license holders.

“We want a decentralized, craft-driven market,” said Pizzutillo, “so we can export our $20 gram just like we export our $10 IPAs.”

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Monday, June 28, 2021

Phish Front Man's Proposed Addiction Treatment Center Divides Ludlow

Posted By on Mon, Jun 28, 2021 at 4:46 PM

  • Photo courtesy of The Divided Sky Foundation

For nearly four months, the Town of Ludlow has been embroiled in a municipal drama concerning a proposed residential addiction treatment center at the site of a former weight-loss clinic, two miles from Okemo Mountain Resort. The fate of the center is now in the hands of Ludlow’s Development Review Board, which must decide by July 12 whether the project can proceed.

In late 2020, Phish front man Trey Anastasio’s Divided Sky Foundation purchased the 18-acre property in the Windsor county ski town for $1.7 million, funded largely by viewer donations from Anastasio’s livestreamed concerts during the pandemic. Ascension Recovery Services, a West Virginia-based health care company that manages similar treatment centers across the country, would operate the 40-bed facility, which is tentatively slated to open later this year.

Anastasio, who is in recovery himself, said that he launched the project to help people of all economic backgrounds who are struggling with addiction. “Substance use disorders affect people from all walks of life,” he told Rolling Stone in March, “and the problem is intimately linked with isolation — whether that’s isolation due to the pandemic or for any other reason.” Last year, overdose deaths in Vermont increased 37 percent from 2019, claiming more lives in 2020 than the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the state Department of Health. Opiates claimed the lives of 28 Windsor County residents — more than any other county in Vermont.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Faith Group Calls for Quicker Cultural Change at Women's Prison

Posted By on Wed, Jun 2, 2021 at 11:56 PM

Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility - FILE: LUKE AWTRY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Luke Awtry ©️ Seven Days
  • Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility
The Vermont Interfaith Action group pressed state corrections officials and lawmakers on Wednesday to improve conditions for women held at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, which has been rocked by sexual misconduct allegations in recent years.

A cultural change promised for Vermont’s only prison for women isn’t happening fast enough, members of the group said.

“As faith communities, we believe there is a moral imperative to change the culture of the Vermont Department of Corrections to a new paradigm,” Linda Wentworth said during a Zoom meeting at which the group called for reforms.

That new model would replace a damaging “power and control dynamic” with a “culture of wellness” similar to what's been created for women prisoners in Maine. That model embraces “measures to improve and maintain [their] physical, emotional and spiritual health," Wentworth said.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

A Bid to Decriminalize an Opiate-Addiction Drug Gets a Boost

Posted By on Tue, Apr 6, 2021 at 5:38 PM

  • Dreamstime | Don Eggert
The Vermont House Human Services Committee has again endorsed a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of the opioid-addiction drug buprenorphine. The committee unanimously approved H. 225 Tuesday afternoon, giving it a path to a vote on the House floor in coming days. It would still need approval by the Senate.

"I think we’ve done a good job on this bill," said Rep. Ann Pugh (D-Burlington) said.  "It will save lives." 

A similar bill stalled in the committee in 2019 over concerns about how much of the drug a person would be able to possess and be exempt from criminal charges. Last year, the committee set that at a two-week therapeutic supply, or no more than 224 milligrams. The bill unanimously passed out of committee just days before the legislature evacuated the Statehouse and the Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency due to the pandemic.

This year, the committee took additional testimony, including from Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George, who has declined to prosecute misdemeanor buprenorphine and similar drug possession cases since 2018.

She did so because this class of drugs “literally block the craving for heroin” and are an integral part of medically assisted drug treatment programs, she said. While there was some skepticism about the policy, including from law enforcement, George said in the year after it took effect, overdose deaths in the county dropped by 50 percent.

"This bill is really a modest step toward recognizing the harm that criminalizing substance use has done on individuals who use drugs,” George told lawmakers. “It tells people that we care about them, that we want them to survive.”

“When given the option in the community of possessing heroin or possessing buprenorphine, we want them to — in fact we encourage them to — possess buprenorphine,” George said.

People under age 21 found with less than 224 milligrams of “bupe” would be given a ticket and referred to a drug diversion program. First offenders who fail to complete the program would face a civil fine of $300 and 30-day license suspension. Second and subsequent offenses would lead to $600 fines and up to 90-day license suspensions. 

Before he became consumed by the COVID-19 response, Health Commissioner Mark Levine cautioned lawmakers against the decriminalization effort, arguing that it might make addicts less likely to participate in supervised treatment programs.

Supporters responded that recovery is different for different people, and not everyone has access to drug treatment that works for them.

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Thursday, March 4, 2021

Cannabis Organization Heady Vermont Is on Hiatus

Posted By on Thu, Mar 4, 2021 at 11:00 AM

Heady Vermont sponsored a party in Johnson in 2018 to mark Vermont's legalization of marijuana use. - FILE: SARA TABIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Sara Tabin ©️ Seven Days
  • Heady Vermont sponsored a party in Johnson in 2018 to mark Vermont's legalization of marijuana use.

Heady Vermont, the cannabis industry group that expanded in 2019 into a new 3,000-square-foot headquarters in Burlington, is on an indefinite hiatus, said founder Monica Donovan.

Donovan said that no events or publications are planned, and she doesn't know if she'll continue with Heady. "I’d love to, but won’t know positively for a while," she said by text on Wednesday.

The 5-year-old membership organization published a weekly "News Roll Up" and organized events for businesses and consumers, including an annual trade show at the Champlain Valley Expo. At its peak last year, it had an all-female staff of six. But the pressures of the pandemic shutdowns were too much for Heady, said Kathryn Blume, the former communications director, who left last summer as work dwindled.

“Events were one of our primary income streams, and if you can’t have events, that makes things really hard,” said Blume, who now works in communications for NurseGrown Organics CBD in Underhill. “Also, the fact that it took so long to get the tax-and-regulate bill passed meant that a lot of businesses who would have been business partners for us were on hold as well, and then the financial uncertainty of the pandemic was, I think, a perfect storm.”

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Roughly Two Dozen Vermont Towns Just Say Yes to Marijuana Sales

Posted By on Wed, Mar 3, 2021 at 3:19 PM

Scott Sparks in his Brattleboro store, Vermont Hempicurean - COURTESY OF TRAVIS STOUT
  • Courtesy of Travis Stout
  • Scott Sparks in his Brattleboro store, Vermont Hempicurean
The Evansville Trading Post, a general store in the small town of Brownington,  has adapted over the years to stay afloat. These days, its wares include food, fuel, fishing licenses and furniture.

Thanks to the town's voters, store owners Andrew and Kelly Swett hope to add cannabis to that list — not the CBD that’s already available on the counter, but the THC-containing products that people use to get high.

“Things aren’t going so great in retail,” said Andrew, who was relieved on Wednesday to learn that the town had voted to allow commercial cannabis establishments, a move made possible by a bill passed last year. “It would be helpful.”

About two dozen Vermont towns considered similar measures on Town Meeting Day, and almost all passed them.

Under Vermont's 2020 law, municipalities must opt in to the adult-use marijuana marketplace through a public vote before any sales can occur. The law allows the state’s existing medical marijuana dispensaries to obtain licenses to manufacture and sell cannabis products to the public starting in May 2022. Other outlets granted retail licensees won't be able to sell until October 2022.

The towns that put the measure to a vote Tuesday are widely spread around the state, and included the large — such as Burlington, which approved the measure by a wide margin — and the small. Burke passed the measure by a vote of 133 to 130, according to the town’s treasurer.

Only three municipalities — Newport City, Richmond, and Lyndon — rejected it, according to early counts. Results from Ludlow were not yet available Wednesday.

The measure passed in Burlington doesn’t allow any marijuana sales until October 2022.

Andrew said he’s already working with one CBD supplier with whom he’d like to partner for the marijuana business. He thinks another entrepreneur who was eying Newport City will probably also try to set up shop in Brownington after that city said no to marijuana sales.

“We’re probably not going to be the only one in town,” he said. “I think it would help business in general.”

Only about 10 percent of Vermont municipalities put the matter up for a vote. More should have, said lawyer Tim Fair, who saw the results as representative of the state at large. Fair is a founder of the Burlington law firm Vermont Cannabis Solutions.

“One of the big surprises for me in this process is how the selectboards were adamantly opposed to putting this vote to the people,” Fair said. “We’re a representative democracy. We can’t agree on anything anymore, yet almost 70 percent  of Vermonters agree we want a legal cannabis industry.”

Selectboards weren’t the only ones opposed. Pathologist Catherine Antley campaigned against retail sales in Middlebury, which approved the measure by a wide margin. Antley said the industry cannot be successfully regulated, and that cases involving organized crime quadrupled in Colorado after commercial marijuana was legalized. “How many Vermonters know that there is essentially no profit in the industry without the creation and maintenance of addiction,” Antley wrote in an email, adding that the industry targets young people.
Before stores can sell cannabis, the governor has to appoint a Cannabis Control Board, whose members would be full-time state employees. That process is already behind schedule. The board members’ terms were due to start January 19, but Gov. Phil Scott hasn’t yet named his choices. The law calls for the board to recommend certain fees by April 1, and to begin making rules for cannabis establishments by June 1.

Scott has been forthright with his concerns about legalizing marijuana, saying there is more work to be done in the areas of road safety, racial equity and the prevention of misuse. He allowed the legislature’s tax-and-regulate bill to become law without his signature last fall.

Eli Harrington, a Burlington-area cannabis activist who runs a website called Vermontijuana, noted that the town where the governor lives, Berlin, voted to allow commercial marijuana sales.

“Hopefully it’s a little kick in the ass for this commission to form, because that’s really what is holding things up,” Harrington said.

When things do get under way, Scott Sparks, who owns the Vermont Hempicurean CBD store in Brattleboro, has big expansion plans. Along with opening an adult-use marijuana store, he’d like to create a test kitchen to concoct edible marijuana products, expand his sales of cannabis growing supplies, and create an area for growing plants as a demonstration for visitors. He envisions the latter as a “Ben & Jerry’s-type thing for people who haven’t seen cannabis growing before.”

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Thursday, February 4, 2021

Vermont Nets $1.5 Million in Opioid Settlement With McKinsey

Posted By on Thu, Feb 4, 2021 at 1:51 PM

OxyContin on a pharmacy shelf - DREAMSTIME
  • Dreamstime
  • OxyContin on a pharmacy shelf
Vermont will receive $1.5 million in a multistate deal with the consulting firm McKinsey to settle legal claims over its work with OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma to boost opioid sales.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan announced on Thursday the state's sliver of a reported $573 million settlement with 47 states.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Purdue Pharma to Plead Guilty in Criminal Probe Initiated by Vermont Prosecutors

Posted By on Wed, Oct 21, 2020 at 2:13 PM

Christina Nolan, U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Christina Nolan, U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont
Updated at 8:07 p.m.

Purdue Pharma, the notorious drugmaker accused of fueling the opioid crisis, will plead guilty to two counts of violating federal anti-kickback laws, a major win for Vermont U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan, whose office uncovered the scheme. The company, best known for producing the opioid OxyContin, will also admit to defrauding federal health agencies.

Purdue will pay a criminal penalty of more than $5.5 billion in what the U.S. Department of Justice said Wednesday is the largest such penalty ever levied against a pharmaceutical manufacturer in a criminal case. Purdue will also pay an additional $2.8 billion civil fine, making for an $8.3 billion total settlement.

"The resolution in today’s announcement re-affirms that the Department of Justice will not relent in its multi-pronged efforts to combat the opioids crisis," Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen said during a press conference announcing the deal.

Nolan's office began investigating Purdue in 2018. This past January, she announced a $145 million settlement with electronic medical records company Practice Fusion, which had conspired with Purdue to push pills to patients using an alert system embedded in medical software.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Vermont Lawmakers Send Retail Cannabis Bill to Governor

Posted By on Tue, Sep 22, 2020 at 12:54 PM

  • Luke Eastman
After years of debate, lawmakers on Tuesday gave final approval to a bill that would create a legal retail market for marijuana in Vermont.

The Senate voted 23-6 to accept the report of a legislative committee that hammered out long-standing differences between the House and Senate over the best way to tax and regulate cannabis in the state.

“This has been a long, winding road to get to this point,” Sen. Dick Sears (D- Bennington) told his colleagues before the vote.

Sears said he would be the first to admit “this bill is not perfect,” but he felt it was a good compromise that he hoped Gov. Phil Scott would sign into law.

“I would be surprised if he didn’t, quite frankly,” Sears said. “In many cases, the conference committee kept his positions in mind.”

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