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Could Vermont Be the First State to Produce Artisanal, Socialist Marijuana?

If Vermonters legalize pot, they're going to do it their way.

David McNew/Getty Images

The approach that Colorado, Alaska, and Washington have taken to legalizing marijuana can resemble the parking lot at a Grateful Dead show: a free-for-all that, while liberating, has produced only a hazy sense of where the party is going. Meanwhile, Vermont, contrary to its popular reputation for the free-wheeling life, is approaching the issue like the nerdy kid in an SAT prep course. Two years ago the state commissioned a massive RAND Corporation report on different approaches to legalization, and last year top state officials flew to Colorado to see for themselves how legalization has been working out in the Rocky Mountains. Medical marijuana has been legal in Vermont since 2004, but when it comes to commercial pot, Vermont intends to not only show the country how legalization is done, but to turn a hefty profit while doing so.

Part of this studious approach comes from the fact that Vermont’s constitution doesn’t allow for ballot initiatives. States where legalization occurred through popular referenda had a big policy change abruptly foisted upon governments that were not as keen on the idea. The result has been a bit chaotic, with lawmakers in Alaska and Colorado scrambling to put laws in place. But in Vermont, because legalization needs to happen through the legislature, law-makers can take their time figuring out the best approach.

In other states this might propose a challenge for legalization advocates, but in Vermont there are currently three pot policy reform bills up for consideration. And the state’s outgoing governor, Peter Shumlin, made it clear in his recent State of the State address that he’d like one of his final acts to be signing legalization into law.

The RAND report, which offers twelve different approaches to legalization ranging from maintaining the status quo to removing all marijuana laws, has only galvanized the debate, making weed one of the hottest topics on the legislature’s docket this session. As a result, Vermont may be the only state where failing to support legalization can get you booted out of politics, and the past year has seen a number of legislators with evolving views on the issue.

“Bringing an underground economy into the legitimate economy is extremely complex,” says state Senator David Zuckerman, the sponsor of one of the legalization bills currently making its way through the Senate. Zuckerman has introduced marijuana policy reform legislation every year for the past 15 years; he puts the odds for passage this year at around 50/50. 

Easing the transition is the potential economic windfall. The RAND report predicts as much as $75 million annually in state tax revenues. And as an agricultural state that relies on greenhouses to grow vegetables in a cold climate, many farmers already have everything they need to switch to a more lucrative crop.

“The skills of a small vegetable grower transfer very well to those of a small marijuana grower,” says John Cleary, owner of Cleary Family Farm and the New England manager for Organic Valley. “If you’re someone who can grow greenhouse tomatoes, those are the same basic skills that it takes to grow marijuana.” 

But perhaps the most compelling reason behind Vermont’s quest for legalization is the sheer Vermonty-ness of the crop itself. For starters, Vermonters like their weed. The RAND report found that residents consume an estimated 33,000 to 55,0000 pounds of it per year (the state only has 600,000 residents). A different study found that Vermont has the third-highest per capita rate of marijuana use in the country. 

And if Vermont is going to do legalization, the general sentiment seems to be that the state should do it in a way that feels true to the way business is typically done in Vermont. That is: small-scale, locally owned and community-supported, organic, sustainable, and artisanal. In other words, marijuana could take a place next to maple syrup, Magic Hat beer, and Lake Champlain Chocolates as the next product that comes with a “Made in Vermont” stamp.

At the forefront of this approach is the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative (VTCC). It has been called an economic dream team, but it’s one that could have only been assembled in a straight-outta-the-Green-Mountain-State fever dream. Its members include a sports bra inventor, the founder of green-cleaning producer Seventh Generation, a maple syrup mogul, and the creator of the state’s largest gardening supplier. And they have big dreams for what marijuana could do for the state. 

“We don’t want to create a commodity, we want to create an artisanal product,” says Will Raap, one of the board members of the VTCC and the founder of Gardener’s Supply. His line cut in and out as we spoke, and in the background I could hear the sounds of birds and wind. Rapp spends a few months each year in Costa Rica, which is one way to survive a Vermont winter. “That’s the only way a small little place can be a player in this industry.”

Vermont has had success in recent years with a growing artisanal cheese industry, and a craft beer industry that has doubled its breweries in the last three years. The state ranks first in the nation for per capita craft beer production. So what would it take to make weed the next craft beer? The VTCC envisions a Vermont where marijuana follows an economic model currently used by the state’s milk producers: Cabot Creamery helps dairy farmers by collecting milk from across the state and turning it into cheese sold under the Cabot label. Why couldn’t weed be collected and distributed in the same way?

“A cooperative is a vehicle to let farmers pool their resources to access a larger market than they could independently,” says Cleary, whose experience with the Organic Valley cooperative has led him to believe that it is preferable for a larger entity to take on the burden of testing and marketing. 

In the cooperative model, a small number of growers would bring their harvest to a central location—the VTCC refers to it as a center of excellence—which would then test the product for quality and package, market, and distribute it. But there are still a few issues to be sorted out before such a co-op could become a reality. For one: Marijuana is not milk. Whereas milk from one farm can be dumped into a giant vat with milk from ten other farms, cannabis doesn’t exactly work that way.

“If you have different strains, you can’t combine them in the same pot and then market it as a uniform product,” says Bill Lofy, a VTCC board member who previously served as chief of staff to Governor Shumlin. “It’s not quite as simple as differentiating between the fat content in milk.”

One solution could be to have the co-op select a dozen or so strains to market under a single label, with growers each cultivating one of those strains. But VTCC members say the actual structure of a co-op will depend heavily on the contents of the legalization bill. The hope is that the bill will set a cap on the size of grow operations, helping to keep farms small and, according to a report put out by the VTCC, keeping “big marijuana” out of the state. And, that the legislation will lay the groundwork for a co-op that not only helps small growers stay in business, but also creates a tourist destination. 

In other words: Ben & Jerry’s for weed.

Raap thinks the center of excellence could be the most exciting outcome to emerge from legalization. His words almost tumble over each other as he describes a building where tourists and locals can come together to learn about quality control when it comes to growing marijuana, growers work on creating new strains, researchers innovate on medical uses for cannabis, and Vermont sets the standard for high-quality, artisanal marijuana.

“Have you been to the Ben & Jerry’s factory?” he asked me when we spoke. Indeed I have, many times, and at the end of the tour they give you a sample of whatever ice cream they’re making that day. On hot summer days a line snakes down the hill toward the parking lot, as tourists queue to purchase drippy cones of flavors that aren’t available in their local stores. Kids run around in the flavor graveyard, wondering why anyone ever thought pear ice cream with fudge swirl sounded like a good idea. It’s not a huge leap to envision tourists beating down the doors of the marijuana version of Ben & Jerry’s, though the crowd might look a little different.

The VTCC is embarking on a social media campaign, complete with animated videos and interviews with farmers, to help convince Vermonters to contact their legislators and tell them they’re in favor of both legalization and a cannabis co-op. They don’t have that many residents left to persuade–56 percent already support legalization

"What Cannabis Can Do For Vermont" - Quick FIVE minute overview from Vermont Cannabis Collaborative on Vimeo.

But not all farmers are convinced by the cooperative model. “I’m not fully for it or against it,” said Eric Rozendaal, owner of the Rockville Market Farm and Eric’s Eggs. “If I’ve got to go it myself, I have a buddy who is a medicinal marijuana grower in Michigan and he’d be available for consulting in the early stages.”

“Vermont Cannabis Collaborative is a good bunch of dudes,” he adds. But with 20 years of farming experience under his belt, Rozendaal says that if legalization happens he’ll be expanding into marijuana with or without the co-op.

His farm grows 150,000 pounds of squash, which sells for an average of 80 cents a pound; Rozendaal estimates that a pound of marijuana could go for as much as $3000. “A pound still weighs a pound,” he says. “It would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I think it could dramatically affect our bottom line without having us change our current business model whatsoever.” 

But whether the co-op model takes off or not, the idea of connecting legalized marijuana to the tourist industry could be appealing to a lot of Vermonters. Tourism accounted for $2.5 billion in spending in Vermont in 2013, and the state already uses its wide range of homey agricultural products to attract visitors, with tasting trails and brewery tours. A report put out by the VTCC estimates tourism could increase by 10 percent in the first year of legalization; the group also recommends offering on-site consumption licenses to ski towns and other heavily trafficked tourist areas, meaning that those towns could set up a pot café. As anyone who has spent time in a one-stoplight Vermont ski town can attest, such a destination would probably be a big draw.

And as the legislature begins to debate the legalization bills, the Vermonters I spoke with all feel that regardless of what a legal cannibas industry looks like in the state, the timing is right to begin the discussion.

“Clearly the sky has not fallen in Colorado, nor Washington,” said Zuckerman, the state senator. “Vermont is poised to do this well.”