On April 26, 2017

Senate OKs marijuana legalization amendment

By Elizabeth Hewitt, VTDigger

Following spirited debate Friday, April 21, the Senate supported a proposal that would legalize marijuana and create a system to regulate and tax marijuana sales.

The proposal, which would set up a system similar to the model currently in place in Colorado, came after several members of the Senate expressed frustration that the House has not advanced a marijuana legalization bill this year.

The amendment was approved by the Senate on a vote of 21 in favor, 9 opposed.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, offered the language as an amendment to H.167, a House bill which encourages people charged with misdemeanor drug crimes to use the pretrial services program.

Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, asked whether the amendment was relevant to the underlying bill, and her challenge was determined to be valid. However, the amendment was allowed to proceed anyway because three-quarters of the body agreed to suspend the rules.

White’s amendment drew heavily from the text of a marijuana legalization proposal the Senate approved twice last year. There are some changes to last year’s bill, including a provision allowing adults to grow pot at home and looser restrictions on small-scale grow operations.

“We know that prohibition has not worked,” White said. “Marijuana is out there. It’s being used. It’s creating an underground market that serves no one.”

If someone wants to sell strawberry jam, they must comply with state regulations, she said.

“Yet we allow this product, marijuana, to somehow be completely unregulated and hope somehow that it will just go away or that kids will just smarten up and not use it,” White said.

Some legislators spoke against the proposal, raising concerns about the lack of a roadside test, as there is with alcohol, for drug-impaired driving.

Flory, who voted against the bill, said that she is concerned about road safety, and noted that marijuana is still illegal under federal law. She also has concerns about the exposure of young children to marijuana smoke.

“I just really get disturbed when I hear it being compared to alcohol, because alcohol you actually have to drink to get drunk,” Flory said. “If you have a young child there in a room where they’re smoking pot, that child can get the influence of it. It is not the same,” she said.

Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, said he was confused by the proposal to legalize marijuana given that the state is already spending considerable amounts of money on drug treatment and prevention.

“Here we are passing another drug so we can spend more money for treatment for care and upkeep of young people when they get caught up on drugs,” Starr said.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who was a sponsor of the amendment, responded to Starr on the floor.

“From one gray haired guy to another gray haired guy, we’re certainly confused because of our generation,” Sears said citing a study by RAND which estimated that approximately 80,000 Vermonters currently use marijuana.

“We got a lot of lawbreakers,” Sears said.

Sears noted that Vermonters will soon be able to legally purchase marijuana in the nearby states of Massachusetts and Maine — both of which passed legalization by ballot measure last November.

Responding to a comment by Starr that the bill will probably stall in the House, Sears said the Senate could vote and “give an opportunity for the other body of the Legislature to make a decision about whether they want to advance or they want to go back.”

Pro-legalization advocates hailed the Senate vote as a victory. Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project lauded the amendment in a statement, and urged action from the other chamber.

But opponents, like Margot Austin, a Burlington High School drug and alcohol counselor and a member of SAM-VT, decried the Senate’s move.

“From a health and safety perspective it’s sad,” she said.

House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, said she had not yet had an opportunity to review the Senate’s language. Grad is a co-sponsor of the House legalization bill, H.170.

“I understand that it’s important to the Senate,” Grad said.

The version of H.167 the House passed last month called for a study of penalties in place for drug possession in Vermont, and considering whether penalties should be downgraded from felonies to misdemeanors. Grad said she considers the work her committee did on that bill very important.

“I’m open to looking time permitting at anything that comes our way,” Grad said, and to understand what the Senate did. “It’s not giving any promises or assertions, but I think it’s the responsible thing to do,” she said.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said the Senate’s move is not likely to prod action in the House on marijuana legalization.

“If the Senate wants to play games, that’s their perogative, but it’s not a game that we’re interested in playing,” Johnson said.

The House legalization bill remains in House Human Services, and Johnson said there are no imminent plans to move it forward. However, she said, leadership hasn’t ruled out a floor vote on the bill before adjournment in the coming weeks.

“We’re not reverse engineering the outcome,” she said. “We’re just taking that very careful, measured approach to make sure we’re doing the right thing for Vermonters.”

Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
Marijuana buds dry with an electronic tag used to track plants from clone to sale at Medicine Man in Denver.

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