By Elizabeth Hewitt, VTDigger.org
After hours of wrangling Monday, Feb. 22, a Senate committee narrowly approved a bill to legalize recreational marijuana — paving the way for the legislation to come up before the full Senate this week.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved S.241 by a slim majority of 4 to 3. But some of the committee’s “yes” votes were cast tentatively.
Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, said she supported the bill in committee because she thinks it’s an issue that deserves a hearing before the full Senate. But when it comes up on the floor, her vote will be “a clear no,” she said.
Under the proposal, Vermonters could legally purchase a half-ounce of marijuana at licensed retailers around the state beginning in 2018.
The administration estimated that the cost to begin implementing the program in the next fiscal year would be $2.1 million — a figure that lawmakers chipped away at in the final stages of committee work.
Committee Chair Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, led the push back against the administration’s projections for spending on legalization in fiscal year 2017. The bill authorizes the state to spend money on the proposal beginning in the next fiscal year in anticipation of revenue that would start coming in down the line, an idea that left some lawmakers feeling uneasy.
The committee is “trying to be very judicious in the amount of money that we’re advancing,” Kitchel said.
Ultimately, the committee shaved the administration’s figures down to $1.7 million in the next fiscal year.
Kitchel said the committee ensured the Senate puts forward a “tightly developed” spending plan, and she supported the bill in committee.
“Now the question is, from an overall perspective, from public policy, is this a direction the state wants to take?” Kitchel said.
It’s a question she hasn’t answered for herself yet. She said she does not know how she will vote.
“To me, I’m going to have to weigh out, as I’ve said before, public safety and public health,” Kitchel said.
Other members of the committee were staunch in their opposition to the bill.
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell voted no — a position he has been firm about throughout the process. Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, also voted no.
Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, said he opposes the bill as a personal matter and because of the feedback he’s getting from constituents. “I just can’t see where this is going to benefit the people of the state of Vermont in any, any form,” he said.
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, said he finds parts of the bill unnecessarily cumbersome. Even though he doesn’t agree with every part of the legislation, he supports it.
“Bottom line is that it has the state backing off of its policy of harassing people who smoke marijuana,” McCormack said. “They’re out there in our state by the thousands.”
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, also supported the bill. He was a leader in shaping the legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he is the chair.
In a statement Monday, Feb. 22, Gov. Peter Shumlin lauded the bill and the work of the Senate committees. He said he believes the bill would undercut the black market and improve on the current system when it comes to keeping drugs away from children and reducing impaired driving.
“The war on drugs policy of marijuana prohibition has failed,” Shumlin said. “We can and should take a smarter approach.”
When the bill comes up for a Senate vote Wednesday, Feb. 24, it will achieve a milestone matched by few marijuana legalization proposals in other state legislatures, according to Matt Simon, of the Marijuana Policy Project.
The New Hampshire House approved a marijuana legalization bill in 2014, but the legislation died shortly after in a Senate committee. In 2010, a California legislative committee gave approval to a bill, but the legislation soon fizzled.
Vermont’s legislation still has a long way to go. The bill does not have clear support from the majority of the upper body. Even if it does pass, it would still have a long road ahead in the House.
According to House Speaker Shap Smith, the bill would begin in House Judiciary and would need to go through the Ways and Means and Appropriations committees. It could go through other committees as well, he said.
Smith said Monday afternoon that he does not believe the bill has enough support in the House to move forward.
In his own view, he said, it has addressed some of his major concerns when it comes to legalization. But he raised issues around drugged driving and the influence legalization would have on children.
“I think that within the next couple of years you’ll see the legalization of marijuana,” Smith said. “Whether it’s this year, I think is an open question.”
According to Shumlin administration estimates, the system would cost $6.8 million in fiscal year 2018. Marijuana would become available for sale halfway through that fiscal year.
By fiscal 2019, the first complete year that marijuana would be legal, the state’s tab would be about $12.3 million.
That would be balanced, according to projections from the Joint Fiscal Office, by $1.13 million taken in from fees in fiscal 2017. After legalization, the office estimates that combined revenue from taxes and fees would be $8.3 million in fiscal 2018 and $17.8 million in fiscal 2019.