On May 18, 2017

Limited marijuana legalization clears legislature

By Elizabeth Hewitt, VTDigger

With a historic vote Wednesday, May 10, the Vermont Legislature became the first in the country to send a marijuana legalization bill to its governor.

The House passed the latest version of a legalization proposal on a vote of 79-66. With the House’s approval, the bill, S.22, moves on to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk, where it could face a veto.

This is the first time any state legislature has passed pot legalization, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized already. All have done so by ballot measure.

The finalized version closely resembles a proposal the House passed last week, H.170, which would allow adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow a small number of plants at home. This would take effect in July 2018, one year after the House initially approved.

The bill will also create a commission of officials and members of the public to draw up legislation to establish a system to tax and regulate marijuana sales—the model of legalization favored by the Senate.

Last week, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who introduced the legalization amendment to legislation that originally related to fentanyl distribution penalties, billed the proposal as “a compromise” between the visions of legalization favored by the House and the Senate.

The House Judiciary Committee discussed the latest proposal Wednesday morning and recommended, on a vote of 8-3, that the House concur with the Senate’s bill.

In the course of more than an hour of discussion on the House floor in the afternoon, some lawmakers opposed the bill over concerns about road safety, health impacts and minors’ access to pot.

Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, argued against legalization, saying that not enough is known about the impacts it may have.

“There are too many unanswered question to pass this at this time,” he said.

Others argued in favor, saying the step is a meaningful criminal justice reform and a due change in policy toward a substance many Vermonters already have access to.

Rep. David Yacovone, D-Morrisville, said the issue reminded him of an adage: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you always got.”

“I do not want what we have always gotten,” he said. He argued that changing marijuana policy would minimize the black market.

Some came to support the bill because it takes a step toward creating a regulated model, as opposed to the original House version, which did not. Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, said recent legalization in Massachusetts will affect her area, and she supports moving to a regulated system in Vermont to bring in revenue to address issues associated with pot.

Whether the governor will sign the bill remains a question. Scott told reporters Wednesday he will need to research the bill before he decides.

“It’s no secret that I don’t believe this is a priority for Vermont,” he said.

Scott said he is not familiar with the latest version of the bill, but he would like any move toward legalization to have more efforts in place to address impaired driving and youth access than previous proposals.

Scott said he has been in touch with other New England governors about marijuana, ahead of legalization in Massachusetts and Maine. And he does not expect the issue will go away in Vermont, even if S.22 does not become law.

“There are a number of other marijuana, pot bills still in play, so whether this one passes or not … it’s still going to come up in the future I believe,” Scott said.

The development prompted responses from advocates on both sides of the issue.

“We are disappointed by today’s vote in Vermont, but our fight is far from over,” said the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, Kevin Sabet, in a statement.

Laura Subin, of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, celebrated the House vote.

“It’s a measured proposal that meets the needs of both chambers. It’s a step forward for Vermont,” she said.

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