So here’s the question: what happens the day after Vermont legalizes cannabis?

The majority of Vermonters believe this is no longer a question of if, merely a matter of when. In our neck of the woods, cannabis can be legally enjoyed in Maine and Massachusetts; and all of Canada (including Quebec) should have legalization by the middle of next year if the Trudeau government follows through on its commitments. Vermont is being quickly encircled by locations where cannabis is legal and readily accessible to Vermont residents. The green rush and the revenues that go along with it are about to pass us by if our elected officials don’t act soon. Given the majority support and increasing pressure from neighboring locales, it is anticipated that compromise legislation will make its way through the legislature, and a plan to tax and regulate the sale of cannabis legally in Vermont will be signed by the Governor.

In anticipation of this, we need to ask the single most important question facing the Vermont cannabis community: is this a movement or a cause? If legalization is simply a cause then the day after Governor Scott puts pen to paper we declare victory and our work is done. However, if this is a movement, our next step becomes systematically creating the infrastructure necessary to facilitate the long term success of legalization.

This process is critical, and it extends beyond the individual vote or a governor’s signature. It requires the thoughtful creation of a culture. The ideas of cannabis and hemp need to fend off challenges, and they need broad-based support to make that crucial transition from the periphery to the mainstream. We can all envision a moment when cannabis is a ubiquitous medicinal herb, and hemp rope is just rope, but how do we get there?

The culture of cannabis demands an infrastructure that can support continuous outreach, not only to elected officials but also to the medical, educational, and law enforcement communities; as well as the social service sector, local municipalities, and the consuming public. It requires ongoing and transparent engagement, aimed at supporting this new commercial industry. And the cannabis community is far larger than the growers and their customers; ancillary service providers, working across the business spectrum, will be diligently working to incorporate Vermont cannabis products as part of the state’s distinctive brand.

So, who is going to set up a public affairs committee to advocate for industrial hemp and cannabis interests in Montpelier? Who will organize a lobby day in the Statehouse Card Room? What will the division of labor look like for the many entities seeking to amplify political power in Montpelier and with our congressional delegation? What will the world of political advocacy look like for cannabis supporters in Vermont? Who will consistently deliver votes for the cannabis community?

These are but a handful of questions we must ask and begin to answer if we are to effectively cultivate the future of cannabis policy here in Vermont, as there are plenty more to come. The politics of cannabis represent just one piece of a much more substantial puzzle, but to explore those other pieces, the political planning must start now.

To be certain, our opponents are not standing idle. They continue to work against us, every bit as hard, seek any and all opportunity to curb legal access to cannabis. They are better established, have a decided financial advantage, and are pressing these advantages against the common interest of Vermonters. And while we might be lured into a false sense of inevitability, we must remember that it’s not time until the Governor finally does put pen to paper, and legalization becomes a reality.

“Winning” in the near term may not mean that we have gained legal access to cannabis products, but it could mean that we have achieved a measure of success in normalizing the responsible use of cannabis. We must develop systems and institutions that increase the awareness of and access to hemp and cannabis in the consumer sphere, thereby rooting these new industries the common psyche of Vermonters. No doubt, job growth and tax revenue generation linked to Vermont’s hemp and cannabis industries will aid this effort at the legislative level. And as we proceed, our position requires that we sustain our gains, grounded in the knowledge that our opposition is equally committed to undermining that progress.

Someday, when farmers grow with little fanfare, and as Vermonters embrace hemp and cannabis as agricultural mainstays of our agricultural economy; our fight to bring these products to market will find future generations puzzled over the obstacles faced in a not-so-recent past. These crops and their commercial success stand as potential cornerstones upon which Vermont’s farm economy may flourish in future decades. This is the beginning of what comes next.

Editor’s Note: Steve May is a licensed independent clinical social worker specializing in addiction medicine, a member of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Advisory Board, and a member of the Richmond Selectboard.

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