Cannabis in the Community
Act 164 (passed in 2020) provides a legal option for Vermont municipalities to permit retail cannabis sales by an opt-in. This requires that the municipality pass a majority vote by Australian ballot at a duly warned and noticed public meeting. This can occur at an annual meeting (e.g. Village or Town Meeting Day) or a special meeting. If the vote does not pass, no retail sales will be allowed. If the vote does pass and a cannabis retailer opens, a municipality can choose to later vote to rescind the vote, but any retailer that opened before the rescission will be allowed to continue operating.
The State Cannabis Control Board has developed proposed rules that provide clarity on the regulation of cannabis operations, as well as guidance for municipalities on cannabis regulation.
The Village and/or Town can provide local licensing for retail cannabis establishments. This would be similar to the liquor licensing process done today, whereby the Town Selectboard acts as the Liquor Control Board. However, unlike local liquor licensing boards (which is silent with respect to villages), with local cannabis control boards, the law simply says that the local municipal legislative body may choose to create one (7 VSA section 863(b)), so villages can have their own local Cannabis Control Board. Therefore the Trustees and Selectboard can vote, either individually or together, on whether they want to have warned public vote to allow retail cannabis for each municipality. However, municipalities have no control over the issuance of anything other than retail licenses or the retail portions of integrated licenses (which occurs when other types of licenses, including cultivation, manufacturing, wholesale and retail, occur in one establishment).
Furthermore, if either municipality votes to allow cannabis retail sales, each can also can institute a local cannabis control board to regulate licensing for retail cannabis establishments. However, such boards may only review, issue, deny licenses for retail sales (or the retail portion of integrated licenses), and only in accordance with state rules (which have yet to be created). Given that a local Cannabis Control Board would have very little discretion over retail cannabis and no input for integrated licenses, the Selectboard or Trustees must decide whether a local cannabis control board is warranted.
Opt-In Vote Updates
The Town Selectboard and Village Board of Trustees will decide separately about whether to warn a public vote to allow retail cannabis in each municipality. To join or follow the conversation, use the Agenda Center to view agendas and minutes for the Selectboard and Trustees.
A petition to place the retail cannabis opt-in question on the ballot for Town Meeting 2022 was presented to the Clerk's Office in the week of January 10, 2022. The petition had more than 900 signatures. Upon verifying the signatures, however, the Town Clerk found that 597 signatures were from Essex voters – fewer than the 822 required for 5 percent of registered voters on a petition. Because the Selectboard had requested that the petition not be submitted early to avoid a special vote, there was insufficient time for the petitioners to gather additional signatures to meet the requirements. Therefore, on January 18, 2022 the Town Selectboard decided to put the retail cannabis opt-in question to the voters (via Australian ballot) for Town Meeting 2022 under the following language:
ARTICLE II. Shall the Town of Essex authorize cannabis retailers and retail portions of integrated licensee establishments in town pursuant to 7 V.S.A. 863?
The Town and Village wish to have robust community conversations about whether and how to allow retail cannabis in the community. The first live community forum took place on Tuesday, December 7th from 4:30-5:30pm. A short presentation on the state and local context for retail cannabis legalization was followed by a question and answer session with Town and Village community development officials. View a recording of the first community forum and the presentation slide deck.
A second community forum took place on Wednesday, February 16th from 6:00pm-7:00pm. View a recording of the second community forum.
Regulation of Cannabis Operations through Zoning
Regardless of whether retail sale of cannabis is allowed, municipalities can control some aspects of how any cannabis establishment (retail or otherwise) operates through zoning and public nuisance laws. These may include mechanisms such as only allowing certain types of cannabis establishments in certain zoning districts, imposing specific conditions to avoid or mitigate public impacts, establishing an overlay district to impose specific standards across multiple underlying zoning districts, or requiring that certain performance standards be met. However, such regulations must treat cannabis establishments like any other business and cannot exceed the authority granted to municipal zoning under 24 V.S.A. Chapter 117.
Zoning bylaws are drafted and reviewed through the Planning Commission of each municipality prior to final approval by the Selectboard or Trustees. Both the Town Planning Commission and Village Planning Commission will be discussing this issue in upcoming meetings, which the public is invited to attend. To join or follow the conversation, use the Agenda Center to view agendas and minutes for each commission.
One important consideration is that under state law (18 V.S.A. §4327) and draft rules proposed by the State Cannabis Control Board, retail sales of any regulated drug (including cannabis) is prohibited within 500 feet of school property. Municipalities may choose to increase this distance through zoning bylaws. See a PDF map showing retail zoning districts in relation to school properties and associated buffers in the Town of Essex (not including the Village of Essex Junction).