Pot legalization lingers in House committee - VTDigger

Pot legalization lingers in House committee

On Saturday evening, as Rep. Jay Hooper, D-Brookfield, made his way down the stairs from a community event at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, a constituent grabbed him.

The woman, a teacher, invited Hooper into her classroom at a local school to chat with students. The subject: marijuana.

Nearly a week after the House was initially set to vote on a bill that would have legalized marijuana, Hooper, a freshman legislator, was still seeking insights from community members on the subject.

Hooper is not the only legislator still navigating the issue.

Jay Hooper, Ben Jickling

Reps. Jay Hooper, D-Brookfield, and Ben Jickling, I-Brookfield, on inauguration day 2017. Photo by Andrew Kutches

One week after the House stalled the marijuana legalization bill, the measure hangs in limbo. The bill is under review by the House Human Services Committee, awaiting word from House leadership about whether there are enough votes within the chamber for the measure to pass.

The proposal, a barebones legalization bill that would simply remove all civil and criminal penalties for adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, was expected to come up for a vote last Tuesday when it was swiftly whisked off the House floor — to undergo further review in the House Human Services.

That’s code for the House Democratic leadership, which supported the maneuver, being uncertain they had enough support to pass the bill on the floor.

Hooper voiced support for legalization on the campaign trail. He favors a tax-and-regulate model, which is not included in H.170. Pot legalization, he believes, is “inevitable.”

“I see marijuana as something that will become a legal substance in every state in the next 20 or 30 years,” Hooper said.

However, his initial support wavered as he heard from constituents ahead of the planned vote, and he considered changing his vote.

“The difficulty I’ve felt with H.170 is that the bill is so bare bones that it’s hard to argue for,” Hooper said.

To be clear, he said this Wednesday, if the bill had come up for a vote last week he would have honored his word to party leadership and voted “yes.” As of this week, he continues to lean toward “yes.” He remains, however, open to listening to voices from his community.

House Human Services

The bill was sent to House Human Services with the request that the committee could consider whether there are sufficient efforts in place to reduce use of marijuana among youth.

In testimony Tuesday afternoon, the committee heard from four witnesses.

Margot Austin, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor at Burlington High School, told the committee education efforts concerning marijuana fall short. Austin argued school-based programs are currently insufficient, and there is a dearth of “broad-based” advertising aimed at informing people about the risks associated with marijuana.

“We need to have an educated populace that understands about the realities of marijuana in the year 2017. We don’t have that yet,” Austin said. “We have a really misinformed population about the drug, because it’s changed so dramatically.”

Reps. Francis “Topper” McFaun and Ann Pugh sit in the House Committee on Human Services in January 2016. File photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger

Rep. Topper McFaun, R-Barre, ranking member on the committee, is a staunch opponent of H. 170.

“I don’t think it helps anybody, I think it hurts people,” McFaun said.

McFaun feels the proposal is not aligned with the mission of the committee.

“I frankly don’t think we should even be taking this up,” he said.

Committee Chair Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, said that testimony Tuesday answered some, but not all, of her questions concerning youth use. She said she wants to learn more about what the current requirements for education and prevention programs are, and how they are being implemented.

“This is the beginning of a conversation,” she said. “It’s not finished.”

She plans to schedule more testimony on the subject in the coming weeks, though noted the committee has other bills to work on, including a measure passed by the Senate expanding medical marijuana.

Pugh said there is sufficient support in the committee to move the bill along when there is support to pass it on the House floor.

“It was not sent to Human Services to kill it,” Pugh said.

“There are the votes in the committee to vote the bill out right now,” Pugh said. “When the weather changes, we will vote it out.”

Politics of pot

According to House Majority Whip Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, who was counting votes in support of H. 170 before the planned floor debate last week, there was a chance the bill would have passed.

“I think people assume that because it was pulled that we knew it was going to fail, that actually isn’t the case,” Toleno said this week. “We knew it was close.”

The decision to send the bill to Human Services, rather than hold a vote, was driven by a few key absences, according to Toleno. A few supporters were out of the building — sick, or someplace else, he said. A few other members were wavering in their support.

Marijuana legalization is not a party-line issue. Toleno compared it to subjects like marriage equality or physician-assisted suicide, “social change” issues that tend to elicit more personal reactions than many policy issues that split Republicans and Democrats.

“They land differently in the building,” Toleno said.

The bill has had supporters on both sides of the aisle. Supporters on both sides have wavered, too.

Rep. Brian Smith, R-Derby, initially said he would vote for H.170. He still thinks it’s “a good bill,” he said.

Among the many constituents Smith spoke with ahead of the vote was a woman who called him standing by the side of the road where her son was killed in an accident that involved marijuana and alcohol.

“She begged me not to support this bill and she broke my heart,” Smith said.

He also heard from members of the Derby selectboard, of which he is the vice chair, who asked him not to support it.

“I didn’t sleep at all last Monday night,” he said.

Smith said his mind is not made up for good on the issue. He could see himself supporting a bill in the future if it addresses concerns around traffic safety, for instance.

He also has concerns about legalizing marijuana for 21-year-olds, which he believes would make it easier for teenagers to access the drug.

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a longtime proponent of marijuana legalization, said the developments in the House last week were “frustrating.”

He acknowledged that for lawmakers, especially those new in their jobs, the subject can be “tricky.”

Legalization is a peculiar issue for several reasons. Zuckerman noted that it can be difficult for lawmakers to gauge support from constituents, because there is a stigma associated with pot that makes it difficult for people to be outspoken publicly.

“I think right now we have a tremendous lost opportunities if we don’t reform our cannabis laws this year,” Zuckerman said. “Every year that goes by, the opportunities for positive outcomes have diminished.”

Toleno, the House majority whip, maintained that the decision to send the bill to the House Human Services Committee was not a failure of leadership in the House, but “a pause” to allow members to gather their thoughts on the issue. The move “was an opportunity to give people the space to breathe, figure out what their concerns were, figure out whether their concerns were already addressed,” he said.

Early this week, Toleno resumed work on the marijuana issue, checking in with House members to see where they stand now. He said there is “a possibility it might move” out of committee and to the House floor.

But it might not.

“If it’s not clear that we have a path forward, then it will probably sit in Human Services for the summer and we’ll come back and see where people are after they’ve had a chance to be home,” Toleno said.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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