Local News

Senate oks marijuana legalization bill

By Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, reports the marijuana legalization bill before a packed Senate chamber Wednesday, Feb. 24. The bill, S.241, will now go to the House.

By Elizabeth Hewitt and Mark Johnson, VTDigger.org

The Senate OK’d a bill Wednesday that would legalize and regulate recreational marijuana — a move that one senator called “not just a step, but a huge leap.”

The bill, S.241, would allow adults to legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana beginning in January 2018. Under the regulated structure, the state would license as many as 45 marijuana retailers in the long run.

The upper chamber voted 16 to 13 in favor of the legislation after several hours of discussion.

The state’s opiate addiction crisis was at the crux of the debate for lawmakers on both sides of the issue.

Opponents of legalization cited the opiate crisis as a reason not to support the bill. Law enforcement resources are already stretched thin, some said, and legalization of marijuana would send a mixed message, particularly to youth.

“Shouldn’t we solve that problem first before introducing another mind-altering drug?” asked President pro tempore John Campbell, D-Windsor.

But others, including David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, and Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said the bill would help the state address the opiate crisis, in part because tax revenues from the sale of marijuana would be put toward substance abuse treatment and prevention.

“This bill actually sets up a system to address that problem,” Benning said.

Support for the bill didn’t fall along party lines. Debate was polite but intense.

Earlier in the day, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the situation on the floor would be “fluid.” It was one of only a few times in his nearly two-decade tenure that he brought a bill to the floor without certainty that it would pass.

Sears took the lead on the bill, along with Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham. White noted the significance of the legislation on the Senate floor, calling it a “huge leap.”

On the Senate floor, Sears called for a study on whether adults should be allowed to grow small amounts of marijuana at home — a provision that Sears and his fellow committee members stripped from the bill in early January. Despite his opposition to homegrown, Sears said he offered the amendment “as a recognition of the importance of this to many Vermonters.”

The amendment passed on a voice vote and replaced an effort by Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, and Zuckerman to allow small-scale production and let Vermonters grow six plants or less.

Sears’ study on whether to allow homegrown operations is to be completed by Oct. 15, 2017; sales are to be allowed under the law starting Jan. 2, 2018.

Zuckerman likened passage of the pot bill to civil unions legislation, saying for some it didn’t go far enough. But he said the bill was a “significant step in the right direction in changing the paradigm.”

Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, voted against the bill because it does not allow homegrown marijuana. It was a “tough issue” for her, she said after the vote.

Balint said she heard from many of her constituents who feel strongly that the bill does not adequately allow for home growers or for small-scale growing operations. Ultimately, she said, she thinks the legislation leaves out “the little guy.”

“I have to vote my conscience, and I felt like it was leaving out people from a brand new industry that could potentially be very lucrative,” Balint said.

Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, said she grew up in the 1960s when pot was plentiful — “the days of milk and honey” — but that there were too many public health problems in other states where marijuana has been legalized, including increased emergency room visits and impaired drivers.

Noting she is a cigarette smoker, Flory added: “Marijuana contains 70 percent more carcinogens than my Marlboros.”

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, tried unsuccessfully to argue the Senate’s actions were unconstitutional. He said the bill was essentially a revenue bill that should have started in the House, but Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, presiding over the Senate, said the main purpose of the bill was marijuana legalization and not to raise money.

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, said she has changed her mind several times in recent weeks. One of her major concerns is the lack of a method to accurately test levels of impairment due to marijuana. But ultimately, she voted to support legalization.

“I think, like Prohibition, it isn’t working,” Cummings said after the vote. “It didn’t stop alcohol.”

Cummings said she’s optimistic legalization will curb the use of drugs in Vermont.

“I’m hoping getting it out front will give us better control and will allow us to deal with it up front,” Cummings said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin lauded the Senate vote. He said he knows there is work to do to get the bill passed in the House. But he noted members of both chambers had expressed skepticism at the beginning of the session. He also warned House members not to use the calendar as a reason not to move forward.

“No one should be able to use time as an excuse not to get this done,” Shumlin said.

The governor put pressure on many senators to support the bill but said backing it was about public policy and not relationships.

“I don’t think this is about who is friends with the governor. This is about moving to a smarter public policy than the current failed war on drugs,” Shumlin said.

Sears said he would have voted against the bill seven or eight months ago when the process started. He said he changed his mind after a series of public hearings persuaded him it would be better to be ahead of the curve than behind it.

“This is a very slow and moderate approach,” Sears said. “We’re recognizing this is going to happen at some point and are we better off putting a slow, learning-from-other-state law into effect or just wait and let Massachusetts and New York pass their referendum and it’s all around us.”

Debby Haskins, of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, called the Senate vote “a sad day for Vermont.”

“I’m sad to hear legislators think this is the right thing to do for the health and well-being of all Vermonters when they’re really here to protect us,” Haskins said. “It’s not over, but we have some work to do.”

Haskins said the state should tackle the teen drinking problem first before making another substance like marijuana legal.

S.241 went up for its final reading and vote Thursday, which passed. Now it will go to the House.

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