BRATTLEBORO — As Vermont prepares to roll out its retail cannabis market in October 2022, a key element involves determining what should go on labeling or warnings for products.
“There’s all this education that the sellers, the industry, is going to want to get out to people, and we’re just trying to get some of the guidelines right from the start so they’re science based and not making health claims that they shouldn’t be making,” Vermont Cannabis Advisory Committee member Tim Wessel, who also serves on the Brattleboro Select Board, said Sunday in an interview.
One of his latest tasks involves looking at different warning signs. He shared a photo of symbols used by seven states to indicate something contains cannabis and said they vary widely.
Wessel is a fan of those showing a leaf with the words “contains THC,” or tetrahydrocannabinol, which produces the high effect.
“I think it would be good to align ourselves with other Northeast or New England states,” he said, adding that he likes the Massachusetts and Maine symbols but feels the leaf on each of those look more like a maple leaf. He believes leaves on other states’ labels look more like the cannabis leaf.
Committee members are assigned to explore issues relating to sustainability, market structure, compliance, public health, social equity and medicinal cannabis. The committee will make recommendations to the Vermont Cannabis Control Board.
Wessel is participating in meetings specifically focused on public health issues with fellow committee member and Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine. “It’s fun to talk to Dr. Levine,” he added.
Wessel, who isn’t a consumer of cannabis, is looking for input from would-be buyers in the new market, as well as parents.
“One of things I’ve learned is people who really know this stuff, and may or may not be consumers, understand that the contents of THC is an important thing to know when you’re buying something, and there’s no federal guidelines because it’s not legal, right?” he said. “So every state is the Wild West. They’re just making it while they go. And Dr. Levine and I are both in favor of putting together a requirement to have an informational label just like you’d see on a food product.”
At one of the meetings, Wessel pointed out that people can look at beer labels to see how much alcohol content is in each when they go to a bar or supermarket. He said he and Levine are advocating for having a “cannabinoid profile” on labels to show the total amount of THC and CBD, or cannabidiol, in a given product.
One of the challenges is figuring out how products can be advertised. Wessel said with an eye toward discouraging misuse, rules will determine what claims can be made and how each product can be described.
The committee is looking at warnings that say products can be habit forming and shouldn’t be used by people who are under 21 years old, breastfeeding, pregnant or using heavy machinery. Wessel noted that labeling for edibles might say impairment can be delayed by as many as two or more hours.
“There’s a really funny element that one of the states had on its long list of warnings,” he said. “The last one is, ‘It’s also illegal by federal law.’”
At a meeting, he called it “the zinger of warnings.”
Products won’t be allowed to be marketed to children. Wessel said rules will be created with criteria aimed at not delivering messages to a high percentage of children.
“That’s going to be complicated,” he said. “I don’t even know if you’ll see much advertising on stuff like Facebook, because I’m not sure they’ve decided whether that’s going to happen. There’s just too many people under 21 who use it.”
Appointed to the commitment for his expertise on town issues, Wessel said he made “a pitch for healthy fees for municipalities who are literally going to be doing the on-the-ground work of dealing with any effects of the retail environment,” including policing, zoning, enforcement and compliance.
“I think it was eye opening to some of my fellow committee members,” he said. “They didn’t realize that the Legislature had decided that municipalities don’t get any share of the taxation, which I still feel is very unfair. So we are hoping that it is going to be made up with better fees than towns get for alcohol because those fees are ridiculously low.”
He said only the dozen or so towns that have enacted a local option sales tax would receive revenue from retail cannabis sales.
Wessel is worried about the tight timeline given to the committee, which is anticipated to report recommendations to the board by Oct. 1 and only started meeting about three weeks ago. The board is expected to make suggestions to state lawmakers.
“It’s quite a lift,” Wessel said. “There’s a lot of conversations going on, and people are really hustling to try to make some recommendations to the Legislature.”
Lately, Wessel has been wondering whether people will need to apply for a license to sell approved edible products.
“Are there different tiers that will be allowed?” he asked. “Will you eventually be allowed to get it down at the corner market? Because the corner market can have a cooler full of craft beer.”
Allowing cannabis products to be sold at general stores and bodegas “could be a real boost” for such businesses that have been struggling in recent times, he said.
Asked about the committee’s work during the governor’s news conference Tuesday, Levine estimated being a third to halfway through the process.
“We have a lot of considerations to weigh in on,” he said. “The process is actually evolving, so I don’t want to give a laundry list of all of the things we are concerned about, but obviously there are many considerations you have to have regarding labeling a product, making it quite specific that it’s for adult use, making sure that you don’t have labels that would be so attractive to someone who is not supposed to be using this because of their age, that it would encourage them to get into the product, tamper-proof aspects of the product, a whole host of advertising considerations.”