Courts & Corrections

UPDATED: Marijuana legalization bill advances to House vote

Maxine Grad
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, is chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
(This story was updated and expanded March 22 at 5:55 p.m.)

A bill that would legalize adult possession of limited amounts of marijuana is heading to the House floor.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced the measure, H.170, by a vote of 8 to 3 on Wednesday. The vote came after the bill missed a key legislative deadline Friday, amid speculation that the proposal may not have sufficient support to pass the full body.

The legislation would remove all civil and criminal penalties for adult possession up to an ounce of pot. It would also allow Vermonters to have up to two mature marijuana plants and four immature plants. Under current law, possession of up to an ounce is punishable by a civil fine.

The proposal does not create a regulated market involving legal sales and taxation — a model implemented in Colorado and other states. Instead, the model would resemble the legal pot system in place in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chair of the committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, asked for her fellow lawmakers’ support before the committee vote.

“This really is a criminal justice issue,” Grad said.

She said she has been troubled by a disparity in penalties for possession of marijuana in different forms: Under the state’s decriminalization law, having small amounts of dry pot brings a civil fine, while possession of plants earns criminal penalties.

One year ago, when the committee voted on a Senate bill that would have legalized marijuana, Grad had reservations. “For me a lot has changed in the last year,” she told the committee Wednesday.

She said she’s learned more about the issue that has encouraged her to support this proposal. She cited youth prevention efforts by the Vermont Health Department and an increase in law enforcement officers trained to recognize drug-impaired drivers.

Pending legalization in the nearby states of Maine and Massachusetts is another factor that supports the change in Vermont’s law, Grad said.

Grad addressed uncertainty over the future of the federal government’s stance on state-level marijuana legalization. The more limited proposal is less likely to be in “jeopardy” should the federal government shift from the Obama-era approach of largely leaving it up to states, she said.

“I also do know that just this one incremental step is much safer because it is within our state’s prerogative of defining criminal penalties, different from a tax and regulated system,” Grad said.

Grad said she expects the bill will have support to pass the full House. The measure will likely come up for a vote early next week. If it passes, it would then go to the Senate.

Chip Conquest
Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River. ​Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, vice chair of the committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, said he has concerns about a tax-and-regulate model. He said the bill is the “right policy for Vermont right now.”

The third co-sponsor, Rep. Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland, the committee’s ranking member, described himself as “fairly libertarian.”

“I like this bill. There is minimal government intervention,” he said. He said his support for the measure was bolstered by testimony from a witness from Washington, D.C.

Three representatives on the 11-member panel voted against the measure, including Rep. Janssen Willhoit, R-St. Johnsbury. He raised concerns that without creating a system of regulation and taxation, the proposal will require Vermonters to get marijuana either by growing it themselves or going to the black market.

“That just leaves this big hole that I just don’t think is right to do,” Willhoit said. “Because of that, even though I appreciate the work we’re doing, I’m not going to be able to support (H.170).”

In addition to legalizing small amounts of marijuana, the bill adjusts penalties for possession of larger amounts. Possession of between 1 and 2 ounces or three mature plants would be decriminalized, subject only to a civil fine. Criminal penalties would apply for greater amounts.

The bill missed a Friday deadline by which legislation is expected to emerge from committee, but it was granted an extension.

Dick Sears
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington. File photo by Amy Ash Nixon/VTDigger
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he was pleased the House committee was able to meet the extended deadline for the bill to cross over to the Senate.

Sears was a key supporter of a bill last year that would have created a taxed and regulated market. He indicated that proposal might be under consideration again should H.170 pass the House and make it to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.

“I’ve heard a lot of folks who are very interested in seeing a regulated system in the House, and it’s no secret that we in the Senate would prefer a regulated system,” Sears said.

“As long as we create a path toward a regulated system that could coincide with Massachusetts’ implementation and Maine’s implementation, I think we’d be in good shape,” Sears said.

Should the bill clear both legislative chambers, it could still face a steep hurdle. Gov. Phil Scott has said he is not opposed to legalization but would like to see a roadside test similar to those used to test for alcohol impairment.

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  • MikeParent

    We’d all be better off if the police focused on crimes that have actual victims

    Does anyone honestly believe that wasting $20 Billion and arresting 2/3 million Americans for choosing a substance proven to be safer than what is currently allowed is a sound policy?

  • Bob Orleck

    Any legalizaiton bill passed in the House will become a commercialism bill in the Senate. Senator Sears wants it bad. He sponsored the commercialism bill last year. After crossover failed, he indicated he would take it even if passed later. It is all money driven and the public be damned. What a price we will all pay, especially children and youth, the mentally ill and those who will die on the highways from impaired drivers.

    • Francis Janik

      Bob, You are correct about Senator Sears. We need to try and keep the bill as written. I will agree with you that the Senate could try to insert a limited licensing scheme. We fought that last year. As to impaired drivers, I would point out that we have individuals driving impaired on many substances. I do not approve of driving intoxicated. My point is that the drivers who smoke are already in the mix. Cannabis is here and has been for decades. Children need good parents. My parents knew where I was at all times. As to those individuals that you have termed mentally Ill, Cannabis is currently used to treat many conditions including these illnesses. H.170 will give all who need this therapy low cost access.

      • Bob Orleck

        Francis: This bill will not be kept as written. Read again this good article that clearly points out the plan for giving the House more time to get the votes to pass H.170. It is not so H.170 will become law. It is so H.170 can be changed into a big money commercialization bill when it gets to the Senate and into the hands of Senator Sears. The only good H.170 bill is a dead H.170 bill.

        Just because people do things illegally does not justify legalizing the conduct. You have to think beyond this being a minor thing. With legalization come rights to advertise with First Amendment implications, zoning issues and so much more. Legalizing is much different than decriminalizing and H. 170 is a legalization bill.

        As for Marijuana being used to treat mental health conditions, if that is so, it is medical malpractice. There is no accepted medical use for marijuana in mental health conditions, regardless of what people or even the State of Vermont might think. It has been scientifically shown, over and over, that marijuana worsens many mental health conditions.

        Marijuana is a Schedule I drug and has according to federal law, no accepted medical uses and in fact is illegal to possess. Passing a legalization law puts Vermont in direct violation of federal law and with this new administration in Washington, there could be bad consequences.

        • Jason Brisson

          Please do explain how legalizing the homegrow of two mature plants and four immature plants will lead to: “rights to advertise with First Amendment implications, zoning issues and so much more.”

          #InquiringMindsWantToKnow

          So because the Feds say….as if states have no rights.

          FYI, wouldn’t be the first time, and probably not the last that VT passed a law that put the state in conflict with the Feds–Civil Unions and Campaign Finance are the first two that come to mind.

          • Bob Orleck

            It is hard to reason with someone who does not think that the “rule of law” is important to protect us against a law of men that would be defined as anarchy. If you have been observant seems to be where we are heading. No one is above the law and no state is either. This is a government of laws and not men.

            You are wrong in your reasoning and H.170 will quickly turn into a commercialization bill in the Senate if it gets there. Do you not believe that stores will not want to advertise and to increase their sales and profits? Legalization brings up issues of First Amendment rights to advertise, zoning and the like. Why do businesses advertise? To increase sales of course. More sales means more use and more of the negative effects on more people.

            If you truly have an “inquiring mind” you should look at the message sent by the medical community, the law enforcement community and the educational community. They put out the facts regarding the dangers of marijuana and an inquiring mind, one not clouded by dope, would want to know.

          • Jason Brisson

            It is hard to reason with someone who believes laws are set in stone. I find it interesting that someone steeped in “rule of law” is so ignorant to laws being able to be changed, and changing all the time.

            That’s the beauty of a democracy, as the will of the people changes, so then do the laws that govern them as enacted by their representatives. Even our nations constitution that lays the framework for all our laws, has provisions for a constitutional convention wherein it can be changed.

            This is a government of men AND WOMEN, who enact laws to govern them.

            Back to the issue at hand though–please do explain how legalizing the homegrow of two mature plants and four immature plants will lead to: “rights to advertise with First Amendment implications, zoning issues and so much more.”

            Couldn’t do it huh? As the bill is currently written, you don’t have a leg to stand on.

            A mind not clouded by government propaganda, sees the danger in only accepting “factual” information from people who have vested interests in keeping a plant illegal. Pharma, corrections, law enforcement, and the alcohol industry are the biggest funders of anti-cannabis–because they stand to lose the most $$ if its legal.

    • Michael Olcott

      Yes indeed let us not forget to list the others who will lose out if cannabis is allowed to be grown in our gardens. that is all the LE and AG’s who will lose out on millions in civil asset forfeiture seizures. Oh and of course the Pharmaceutical makers and those who get kickbacks or other incentives to push their pills. i mean we cant have our children ingest CBD oil when Ritalin or some other Anti-something or other will do. Gods forbid that This ( http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-marijuana-traffic-death-idUSKBN14H1LQ )should happen here or that our craft beer makers will have competition. yep terrible things to come huh Bob.

    • Dave Silberman

      Mr. Orleck repeatedly states that legalization will lead to increased underage use and drugged driving.

      Mr. Orleck repeatedly ignores the fact that legalization has not actually lead to increased underage use or drugged driving in any state.

      It hasn’t happened in Colorado.

      It hasn’t happened in Washington.

      It hasn’t happened in Oregon.

      It hasn’t happened in Alaska.

      It hasn’t happened in Washington DC.

      It hasn’t happened in any of the 29 states with medical marijuana programs.

      It hasn’t happened in any of the dozens of cities and states that have decriminalized possession.

      It hasn’t happened anywhere.

      But Mr. Orelck insists Vermont will be different!

      • JustinTurco

        It’s happening but practically impossible to detect and measure. Even after a crash. You know that.

      • JustinTurco

        the government says it’s hard to detect if accidents are caused by pot. this is because alcohol is usually present and it is hard to know which caused the accident. They also say that drivers are twice as likely to be involved in a deadly accident if high on drugs. this is information gleaned from statistics.

        • Dave Silberman

          That’s not accurate. The most recent and most comprehensive data analysis (Rogeberg & Elvik, 2016, published in Addiction, 111: 1348–1359) indicates that acute THC impairment (in the first 3 hours following consumption) is associated with a 22%-32% increased crash risk — that’s overall crash risk, not lethal crash risk as you wrote, and it’s 1.3x, not 2x as you wrote.

          The authorities in CO, WA and OR pull blood samples in all fatal accidents and test them for drugs (including alcohol and THC). None of these states has found an increase in fatal accidents following legalization (though one ex-DEA agent in CO issued a report comparing 7 months of crash data in 2013 to 12 months of crash data in 2014, and reducing the positive test threshold by 50% between those two years, and declared a 32% increase, which is laughable).

          WA has reported the results of its (non-fatality) driver THC testing program for years. Since their legalization law went into effect, they’ve more than tripled the number of tests conducted — but the number of positive tests has stayed flat.

          It’s not that we lack evidence of what’s going on in those other states. We do have the evidence, and the evidence is that there has not been an increase in drugged driving.

          Drugged driving is a serious concern. It’s also an existing concern. It’s also a concern that is much broader than marijuana. And it’s also a concern that is not actually impacted by legalization.

      • Alyce Stein

        Unfortunately, Mr. Orleck likes to preach from the fire and brimstone pulpit. He disregards, denies and omits verifiable facts that fail to support his views. Sound familiar?

    • John Skalecki

      Oh Bob, if you only knew how many people are driving around stoned right now. I bet you passed one this morning on the way to get a coffee. People who smoke cannabis don’t care about silly laws.
      Its been going on for many many years. Be more afraid of the drunk driver, for he knows not what he does. The only thing that will change if this law passes is there will be a few less lives ruined by a really dumb law.

      • Skyler Bailey

        While that may be true, that is no reason the state ought to have a vested interest in the creation and maintenance of an ever increasingly taxable pot-smoking population.

        • John Skalecki

          Ah but it does. VT needs revenue. For roads, bridges, schools. And our tax base is going down not up. It’s really the only solution besides making VT a business friendly state. And that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Our lawmakers (most of whom are from out of state) prefer VT the way it is, a giant State Park that must be preserved as is at all cost.

  • walter carpenter

    “It is all money driven and the public be damned.”

    So is the policy as it is now. How much do we taxpayers fork over for the system of incarceration or sentencing for pot crimes, and all the police forces and lawyers necessary to enforce them? Also, how many people have died on the highways from a marijuana impaired driver (if these exist, but I’ll go with it for now), versus alcohol-impaired drivers and yet you do not advocate for making alcohol illegal.

    And, for what it is worth, Washington State, where marijuana is legal, made over $250 million last year in state taxes alone off of marijuana sales. I wonder how many states that are facing a budget crisis, and probably most of them are right now, would look at this and think a little more about their marijuana policies

    http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/jul/8/marijuana-sales-washington-top-1-billion-report/

  • Alyce Stein

    Despite what some believe, the sky is not falling! Even US Congress members recognize that it’s time to eliminate federal criminal penalties for possessing and growing cannabis.

    Rep.Tom Garrett (R-VA) introduced HR 1227, to the House of Reps. on 2/27/17. The bill, originally introduced by Sen. Sanders (2015), aims to exclude marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. According to Garrett, there is bipartisan support for the legislation and he is hopeful that the House Judiciary Committee will perform their task with diligence. [https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1227/actions].

    • Bob Orleck

      Removing penalties for possession is not the same as legalization. There were over 500 bills submitted to the House this year. I think only one has passed this year so far. There sure won’t be many of those 500 that pass. The same thought applies to federal legislation and the number of bills that get passed. Probably even worse.

      As for citing Bernie Sanders as an indication that times are changing Politico has this to say:”Sanders had big ideas but little impact on Capitol Hill
      Democrats who worked with the Vermont senator say he contributed to the debate, but rarely forged actual legislation or left a significant imprint on it.”

      There are proper avenues to follow to enable medical researchers to get the well-controlled clinical studies, but most don’t want to follow process but subscribe to “if it feels good, do it” and no matter the damage to others. The only problem with that thinking is that you may some day be one of the others.

      • Alyce Stein

        I am very conscious of the downside of legalization as I am of the upside of medical research. Don’t misunderstand – smoking or ingesting and driving is insane, but I know people who do. They are seniors with MMJ cards, not teens. Frankly, the seniors frighten me as much as the teens do!

        My ‘agenda’ if you will, is based on personal experience. It is the only medicine that would have helped my mother’s degenerative arthritic condition. She opted for surgery and the outcome was catastrophic. I wish she had subscribed to “if it feels good, do it.”

        I only cite Sanders because Congressman Garrett was not the originator – Sanders was.( Interesting backstory on the Senator; I never imagined that he would ever step on the national platform.)

        Indeed, HR 1227 merely removes marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act; it does not ‘legalize’ cannabis. However, rescheduling will help medical research funding and long term studies are badly needed to help prevent “damage” to all.

  • Peter Everett

    If there was no, potential, revenue involved the bill would never come up for a vote. But, $$$$$ are all that matters, hence, it will happen. As far as safety, I can not offer a pro or con on the subject. As part the the Boomer generation who lived through this in the 60’s, I’ve only seen this stuff once in my life. Don’t believe in using any product that alters my moods (including alcohol). I’m boring, admit it. I just don’t want to see harm due to actions of users. If they do harm others, hopefully, consequences will be harsh. $$$$ is all that matters to the Legislature.

    • Matthew Davis

      This bill is not about $$$. It does not attempt to create a retail/regulated market in VT and instead allows for possession and home cultivation. All the $$$ will go to Mass and Maine…

      • Bob Orleck

        Do you really believe this bill the way it is written will end that way. No chance! If you believe this, I have some beachfront property in Nevada to sell you.

        • Matthew Davis

          I was merely commenting on how the bill is currently written. I personally hope that is does change and that more plants are allowed, and that a regulatory system for the sale of cannabis in VT is created. The people want this.

          • Bob Orleck

            Matthew: Which is exactly my argument that we are not a government of men but of laws. Sometimes, somebody has to say “NO” to what people want. People don’t always want what is best for them. Maybe you have noticed. I know that will invoke the responses of who gave me the right to decide for them. Nobody did. I am talking about a representative government that is there to protect the general public and not be a Santa Claus to the wants and desires of people to self-indulge in dangerous drugs that affect not only them but the people around them.

      • Alyce Stein

        Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Connecticut are actively pursuing legislation to tax and regulate and/or expand MMJ conditions. Even cautious New York recently added chronic pain, neuropathy and PTSD to their existing MMJ requirements.

    • Bob Orleck

      Last year Senator Dick Sears and others in the Senate were pushing for marijuana stores in Vermont to sell it to raise revenue to use to treat people who were using and to keep people from using marijuana and he would also use the money to beef up law enforcement to deal with the problems that marijuana use brings. How crazy is that concept? Let’s not go wacky on this for it will cost lives. Those lives could be yours, your family or friends. This is what a lot of citizens see as the worst of worst of what our legislative system is about. Big powerful senators, with superior attitudes, pushing to have their way! Let us hope and pray that the House members, lawmakers who are closer to and more sensitive to the citizenry will just say “NO”. I don’t think it is any secret that Senators think they know more than House members. After all, they are Senators! It’s about time they start looking out for what is best for the people.

      • Matthew Davis

        Well over half the population of VT, and the country is in support of legalizing marijuana. In every state that legalized, it was by referendum. The fact that it has taken this long in VT suggests legislators are not actually listening to their constituents. It seems that you believe that we need government to tell us what to do as we can’t make our own decisions about what is best for us.

        “Let’s not go wacky on this for it will cost lives. Those lives could be yours, your family or friends.”

        You continually make this claim but never provide support for it. It is simply not true. The only lethal form of marijuana is a one pound brick of it dropped on one’s head from great height.

  • Clancy DeSmet

    If they listened to voters, not law enforcement, the bill would have been passed years ago.

  • Neil Johnson

    Interesting how some bills get special consideration. Kinda bait and switch for the public at large, nope doesn’t appear to make it this year says the press. Up, guess it can now since we extended the deadline.

  • carolyn bates

    I sincerely hope that all legislators pass this bill as soon as possible.

  • JustinTurco

    As far as I am concerned pot makes us fat, lazy, dependent and liberal. I think all Reps in Montpelier should have to pee in a cup to keep their jobs. I don’t want the people making decisions about my state to be stoned. Good luck measuring impairment roadside. Might as well make texting while driving legal too.

    • David Bell

      “As far as I am concerned pot makes us fat, lazy, dependent and liberal.”

      As far as I am concerned this attitude is offensive, bigoted and conservative.

      • JustinTurco

        Offensive….I can see why you might feel that. Conservative?….I am. Bigoted?….no….But like you……just for different reasons…….seriously concerned for the future of our nation. I really believe the attitude that is permeating, and the growing number of Americans who push for legalization, signals a bad trend for the future of our nation. I don’t believe that, in the world we live in today, there is room for any kind of impairment if you want to be one of the ones who thrive. Truthfully, I guess I really wouldn’t care if everybody thrived. Except that, those who crash and burn doing stuff that “I view” as stupid then turn around and lean on me to help them back up. Happy to prop up those legitimately dealt a bad hand. I don’t suspect that will make you feel better. I do apologize for the FAT comment. If every liberal I know didn’t support programs that happen to prop up lazy and dependent people I’d apologize for the liberal comment too. You are NOT out of line. I am simply sick and tired of this topic coming up OVER and OVER again. It’s a constant fight. There is a societal price to pay for drugs and alcohol that will drag me down in some way for sure. I see it as the same kind of mindset that feels the need to create a safe place for Heroin users to shoot up. Making dope legal will promote a host of ills that I will be asked to pay for in the never ending battle to make things right. Kind of like that “safe” place to shoot up Heroin. In my way of thinking: It’s ALL a bad idea and eliminates the need, ability and desire for a man to stand on his own two feet.

        • Matthew Davis

          It seems like by your logic, alcohol, tobacco and many pharmaceuticals should be made illegal as well.

          “Making dope legal will promote a host of ills that I will be asked to pay for in the never ending battle to make things right.”

          Has this happened on any state that has legalized?

  • JustinTurco

    It’s hard to measure how many crashes are caused by drugged driving. This is because:
    a good roadside test for drug levels in the body doesn’t yet exist
    police don’t usually test for drugs if drivers have reached an illegal blood alcohol level because there’s already enough evidence for a DUI charge
    many drivers who cause crashes are found to have both drugs and alcohol or more than one drug in their system, making it hard to know which substance had the greater effect
    This is a cut and paste from this article.
    https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/drugged-driving

  • Clancy DeSmet

    I’d like to see referendum power given to the voters in Vermont.

  • Samuel Shultis

    The AAA Foundation for Highway Safety reports that deaths in marijuana-related car crashes have doubled since the State of Washington approved legalization.
    The fact checker says,
    “True. The foundation’s website notes that the deaths [from smoking marijuana and driving] DOUBLED from 2013 to 2014.”
    Pediatrics professor at Yale, Dr. Sheryl Ryan said that,
    “Marijuana ‘is the drug of choice’ for many of her teen patients in New Haven, Connecticut. Some think daily use is safe, noting that their parents or grandparents smoked pot in college and turned out OK. But today’s marijuana is much more potent and potentially more risky.”
    ‘How many of those grandparents or parents for that matter, actually understand that their own use of marijuana is now becoming the justification cited by their own grandchildren? You might simply say that in moral terms, what goes around comes around again. But in this case it’s coming around in an altogether more dangerous and more potent form.’
    Al Mohler