Crime and Justice

House committee opts to study marijuana legalization

Maxine Grad

Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, is the chair of the Judiciary Committee. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

After hearing from dozens of witnesses over several weeks on marijuana legalization, the House Judiciary Committee is putting pen to paper anew.

Chair Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, put forward a fresh proposal for a bill Wednesday afternoon.

The draft, which would be introduced as a new committee bill, would decriminalize possession of up to two marijuana plants, and would create a commission to study and make recommendations on the issue of legalization and regulation in the future.

The proposal is a step back from S.241, the marijuana bill that passed the Senate in February. It would have legalized recreational use of pot by adults and allowed for licensed cultivation and sale as of the beginning of 2018.

That bill passed the Senate on a 17 to 12 vote.

However, the proposal to create a regulated market for marijuana, a position strongly endorsed by Gov. Peter Shumlin in his State of the State address this year, found a tepid reception in the House.

Grad floated her draft of a new committee bill Wednesday afternoon.

While decriminalizing limited possession of plants, the proposal takes steps to clamp down on drugged driving. It would create a penalty for driving under the influence if a person’s blood alcohol level is 0.05 percent or higher and his or her system has any traces of psychoactive chemicals indicating marijuana presence.

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Another House committee is exploring legislation that would allow for roadside saliva testing for drugged driving.

Grad said she compiled the bill based on testimony the committee has heard, along with input from fellow committee members on what they find important. On one hand, she said, they heard from people who felt like criminals because of the exclusion of homegrown marijuana from decriminalization policies. Others were reluctant to move forward with legalization at this stage. She is aiming for a committee vote by the end of the week.

Traffic safety, the subject of a separate bill the committee approved last month, was one key issue, Grad said. Earlier in the day, committee members highlighted drugged driving as a key concern they gleaned from testimony on S.241.

“If we learned nothing else, we know that our highways are unsafe right now,” said Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton.

The new pot bill also would prohibit chemical extraction of marijuana — a process, sometimes involving butane, to create a more potent drug. Law enforcement has made arrests in alleged clandestine laboratory cases related to hash oil recently, but there is no law against it.

Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, reported the DLS bill on the House floor Tuesday. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

“Given where it looks like the committee could go, I think we’re doing what we can do,” said Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River.

Conquest said legalization has never been a priority for him. However, he felt the committee would look to put in place some sort of trigger to begin the process of legalization. The committee had floated the idea of waiting for a nearby state to legalize, or to begin the rulemaking process and require final approval from the General Assembly before implementation.

“If Vermont is going to go down the road of legalization someday, which I think we are, I think it’s helpful for us to have sort of put down what it looks like, what the Vermont version looks like, now rather than responding to some neighboring state’s version of what they think it ought to look like,” Conquest said.

Rep. Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland, said he needs to spend more time reviewing the new bill proposal before deciding where he stands, particularly on the issue of decriminalization.

Burditt’s biggest concern is his constituents, he said.

Others on the committee have been staunchly opposed to the legislation.

Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany, said Wednesday morning that she did not support moving forward with any bill — either S.241 or a new committee bill.

Strong questioned spending committee time on the issue, saying she does not consider it a priority. “What I’m talking about is priorities in our state, in our country,” Strong said, “and we’re looking at marijuana.”

House Judiciary proposed a committee bill rather than a strike all of the existing language in the Senate bill, S.241, because replacing it with a new version presents a procedural challenge this late in the session.

Shap Smith

House Speaker Shap Smith. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

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The deadline for sending legislation between the two chambers passed in early March. At this point, the Senate Rules Committee would need to agree to suspend the rules for a new bill to even come under consideration in the upper chamber.

House Speaker Shap Smith said Wednesday that if the committee is most comfortable with moving forward with a new committee bill, he will be supportive of that.

“It’s not clear to me where the bill will wind up at this point in time,” Smith said.

Smith said he believes the state will move forward with a system of legalization and regulation at some point. But he considers some of the questions raised about the Senate bill’s timeframe legitimate.

Meanwhile, he said, lawmakers need to move forward with something this year to be prepared to build a system of legalization in the near future, especially as neighboring states consider taking action.

“I’ve been very clear with the membership that I think we need to acknowledge what’s coming at us, and if we do not feel like we’re ready yet, then we damn well better figure out what we’re going to need to be ready, because it’s coming,” Smith said.

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