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. For more information on local cannabis licensing in Essex, read Town staff's July 29, 2022 memo to the Selectboard on the topic.
Opt-In Vote Updates
The Town Selectboard placed a question of whether to allow retail sales of cannabis in the Town of Essex on the ballot for Town Meeting on March 1, 2022. The question passed with 3,589 voting in favor, 2,743 voting against, and 102 undervotes.
The Village of Essex Junction (now the City of Essex Junction) warned a separate vote for Village Meeting on April 12, 2022 on whether to allow retail cannabis within that jurisdiction. The question passed with 1,456 voting in favor, 1,026 voting against, and 68 undervotes.
Therefore, sales of retail cannabis will be allowed in both the Town of Essex and City of Essex Junction. Note that before any retail cannabis establishment can begin operations, it must obtain a license from the state Cannabis Control Board (which is scheduled to begin issuing retail licenses on or before October 1, 2022).
For more information about the vote, review the question and answers document prepared by Town in advance of the vote.
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. Zoning bylaws are drafted and reviewed through the Planning Commission of each municipality prior to final approval by the Selectboard or Trustees. The Town Planning Commission discussed this issue in March 2022, as summarized in staff's memo to the Planning Commission on Cannabis Regulations.
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. Currently, the Town has not defined cannabis uses separately from other types of uses. For instance, a cannabis retailer would fall under the “Retail Sales” use in Essex, and would be subject to all relevant zoning requirements, including allowed zoning districts, review procedures (i.e., zoning permit, site plan approval, and/or conditional use approval), and design standards otherwise applicable to retail sales uses. It appears most other license types would fall under the definitions “Light manufacturing” (possibly including indoor cultivation), “Research and Testing Laboratory,” or “Warehouse, Storage, and Distribution.” Note that smaller establishments may fit the criteria of “Home Business” or “Home Occupation,” but would be subject to state licensing as well as the provisions of Section 4.9 of the Essex Zoning Regulations (ZR).
One important consideration is that under state law (18 V.S.A. § 4327) and draft rules proposed by the Vermont Cannabis Control Board, retail sales of any regulated drug (including cannabis) is prohibited within 500 feet of property owned or leased by a public or private school and used frequently by students for educational or recreational purposes. Municipalities may not modify or increase this buffer. See a PDF map showing the Town's retail zoning districts in relation to school properties and the associated 500-foot buffer.
Regulation of cannabis cultivation, both indoor and outdoor, is currently subject to municipal zoning. However, the Town currently defines both indoor and outdoor cultivation as "agriculture," which is exempt from local zoning requirements (including obtaining a zoning permit). Please note that construction of buildings (except farm structures exempt under 24 V.S.A. § 4413(d)(1)) may require a zoning permit and/or site plan review by the Planning Commission.