Courts & Corrections

Senate OKs marijuana legalization amendment

During a recess, senators discuss procedure related to a motion to attach a marijuana legalization amendment to H.167. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Following spirited debate Friday, the Senate supported a proposal that would legalize marijuana and create a system to regulate and tax marijuana sales.

The proposal, which would set up a system similar to the model currently in place in Colorado, came after several members of the Senate expressed frustration that the House has not advanced a marijuana legalization bill this year.

The amendment was approved by the Senate on a vote of 21 in favor, 9 opposed.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, offered the language as an amendment to H.167, a House bill which encourages people charged with misdemeanor drug crimes to use the pretrial services program.

Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, asked whether the amendment was relevant to the underlying bill, and her challenge was determined to be valid. However, the amendment was allowed to proceed anyways because three-quarters of the body agreed to suspend the rules.

White’s amendment drew heavily from the text of a marijuana legalization proposal the Senate approved twice last year. There are some changes to last year’s bill, including a provision allowing adults to grow pot at home and looser restrictions on small-scale grow operations.

“We know that prohibition has not worked,” White said. “Marijuana is out there. It’s being used. It’s creating an underground market that serves no one.”

If someone wants to sell strawberry jam, they must comply with state regulations, she said.

“Yet we allow this product, marijuana, to somehow be completely unregulated and hope somehow that it will just go away or that kids will just smarten up and not use it,” White said.

Some legislators spoke against the proposal, raising concerns about the lack of a roadside test, as there is with alcohol, for drug-impaired driving.

Flory, who voted against the bill, said that she is concerned about road safety, and noted that marijuana is still illegal under federal law. She also has concerns about the exposure of young children to marijuana smoke.

“I just really get disturbed when I hear it being compared to alcohol, because alcohol you actually have to drink to get drunk,” Flory said.

“If you have a young child there in a room where they’re smoking pot, that child can get the influence of it. It is not the same,” she said.

Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, said he was confused by the proposal to legalize marijuana given that the state is already spending considerable amounts of money on drug treatment and prevention.

“Here we are passing another drug so we can spend more money for treatment for care and upkeep of young people when they get caught up on drugs,” Starr said.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who was a sponsor of the amendment, responded to Starr on the floor.

“From one gray haired guy to another gray haired guy, we’re certainly confused because of our generation,” he said.

Sears cited a study by RAND which estimated that approximately 80,000 Vermonters currently use marijuana.

“We got a lot of lawbreakers,” Sears said.

Sears noted that Vermonters will soon be able to legally purchase marijuana in the nearby states of Massachusetts and Maine — both of which passed legalization by ballot measure last November.

Responding to a comment by Starr that the bill will probably stall in the House, Sears said the Senate could vote and “give an opportunity for the other body of the Legislature to make a decision about whether they want to advance or they want to go back.”

Pro-legalization advocates hailed the Senate vote as a victory. Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project lauded the amendment in a statement, and urged action from the other chamber.

“We would love to see the House step up and join the Senate in supporting this sensible reform,” he said.

But opponents, like Margot Austin, a Burlington High School drug and alcohol counselor and a member of SAM-VT, decried the Senate’s move.

“I think our obligation and the obligation of legislators is to think about health and safety and what policies are going to,” Austin said.

“From a health and safety perspective it’s sad,” she said.

The proposal is not likely to go far in the House this year.

A House bill that would legalize adult possession of an ounce of marijuana, without creating a regulated system for sales, nearly came up for a vote on the floor last month, but was sidetracked for further review in a House committee amid uncertainty about the level of support for the bill.

House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, said she had not yet had an opportunity to review the Senate’s language. Grad is a co-sponsor of the House legalization bill, H.170.

“I understand that it’s important to the Senate,” Grad said.

The version of H.167 the House passed last month called for a study of penalties in place for drug possession in Vermont, and considering whether penalties should be downgraded from felonies to misdemeanors. Grad said she considers the work her committee did on that bill very important.

“I’m open to looking time permitting at anything that comes our way,” Grad said, and to understand what the Senate did. “It’s not giving any promises or assertions, but I think it’s the responsible thing to do,” she said.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said the House has taken a modest approach to the issue.

“The Senate’s going to do what it’s going to do,” Johnson said.

She said the Senate’s move is not likely to prod action in the House on marijuana legalization.

“If the Senate wants to play games, that’s their prerogative, but it’s not a game that we’re interested in playing,” Johnson said.

The House legalization bill remains in House Human Services, and Johnson said there are no imminent plans to move it forward. However, she said, leadership hasn’t ruled out a floor vote on the bill before adjournment in the coming weeks.

“We’re not reverse engineering the outcome,” she said. “We’re just taking that very careful, measured approach to make sure we’re doing the right thing for Vermonters.”

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  • Clancy DeSmet

    Now the House needs to listen to their constituency. Speaker Johnson? Majority Leader Krowinksi?

  • Brian Kelly

    Marijuana consumers deserve and demand equal rights and protections under our laws that are currently afforded to the drinkers of far more dangerous and deadly, yet perfectly legal, widely accepted, endlessly advertised and even glorified as an All American pastime, booze.

    Plain and simple!

    Legalize Marijuana Nationwide!

    It’s time for us, the majority of The People to take back control of our national marijuana policy. By voting OUT of office any and all politicians who very publicly and vocally admit to having an anti-marijuana, prohibitionist agenda! Time to vote’em all OUT of office. Period. Plain and simple.

    Politicians who continue to demonize Marijuana, Corrupt Law Enforcement Officials who prefer to ruin peoples lives over Marijuana possession rather than solve real crimes who fund their departments toys and salaries with monies acquired through Marijuana home raids, seizures and forfeitures, and so-called “Addiction Specialists” who make their income off of the judicial misfortunes of our citizens who choose marijuana, – Your actions go against The Will of The People and Your Days In Office Are Numbered! Find new careers before you don’t have one.

    The People have spoken! Get on-board with Marijuana Legalization Nationwide, or be left behind and find new careers. Your choice.

    Legalize Nationwide!

    • James Hall

      So let’s go the extra mile and legalize moonshine, folks, there is no end to this when money is at the root. And, even if pot is legalized and

      • Brian Kelly

        No, instead we should just lock up for life, anyone who dares to do anything that disturbs your personal sense of morality. Regardless of the facts that these people aren’t harming anybody, and there aren’t any victims to these “crimes”

        Sound better and more like your kinda utopia?

      • Patty Smith

        Actually, “moonshine” and other home-brews are legal for small batch home production. If you want to produce and sell moonshine, or other spirits, in larger amounts you must obtain appropriate licensing and pay a special tax on each sale. You can now sample and buy local atrisian spirits at Vermont farmers markets. And, many Vermont families now make their livelihood in the bourgeoning artisan spirits market. I, and many other Vermonters, would like to see the legislature take a similar legislative approach with artisan pot. Vermonters expect our legislators to create laws based on our shared values and which are responsive to both need and opportunity. House members should reconsider this issue, lest Vermonters view them as incompetent and in need of replacement.

  • robert bristow-johnson

    hmmm, i wonder what the Vermont House will do??

    1. refer the Senate bill to committee.
    2. refer the Senate bill to a different committee.
    3. refer the Senate bill to a third committee.
    4. refer the Senate bill to a fourth committee.

  • Steve Baker

    The legislature has only one reason in considering legalizing marijuana. That’s to grab tax money for more frivolous spending.
    Let’s not pretend it’s the right thing to do, it’s all about a cash grab for the tax-and-spend liberals. If it’s the right thing to do for the people of Vermont then let’s do it because it’s the right thing to do.
    Or pass a law all revenue generated from the legalization of marijuana will go to decrease property tax, not into any new spending programs

  • John Klar

    Enough of the “gateway drug” hogwash: histrionic but unsubstantiated claims that cannabis will increase the use of hard drugs. Here is a study that found the exact opposite:
    Opioid deaths have decreased where cannabis has been legalized. I have also read that teen use and impaired driving have declined in those jurisdictions, and I invite others to post those findings here also (if true). Prohibition has utterly failed: witness our heroin epidemic. No more incarceration for victimless crimes!

  • Alyce Stein

    Senator Peg Flory should do her homework. Joseph McSherry, MD PhD addressed the issue of second hand smoke in his WRITTEN testimony to the House Services Committee regarding H 170 on 4-12-17.
    “…if you hold your vapor for 10 seconds, 63% (of the smoke) is absorbed. What is exhaled diffuses through the air at 1700 feet per second.” In order to transmit the remaining 37% to a child, for example, would “require mouth to mouth contact.”

    The legislative body could wait, rehash and do nothing, or, they could pay attention to the testimony of experts with an objective and unbiased mindset.

  • Deb Tyson

    Why are you so hell bent on stopping a bill that could produce
    revenue in our state? The problem is you are all to outta touch with
    reality and have been brainwashed over the years with falsehoods. Yes,
    we need to work on other drug issues such as Heroine, this is what is
    killing the kids and adults alike,but Marijuana is what can help our
    state and lower taxes as well. VT is usually ahead of this kind of
    issues and instead, we are falling way behind. Too many have been jailed
    for this so called crime and need to be released. This is costing Vt a
    fortune. Take your head outta the clouds and stop this nonsense and
    legalize it. Save our state and stop this abuse. People have been
    driving for years under the influence and according to statics alcohol
    is your number one killer on the roads, not pot. Your ignorance to not
    learn facts shows this. Don’t make any more foolish laws, to drain the

  • Scott Kay

    The comments from Speaker Johnson come off as childish. Openly talking about games being played between the Senate and House. Get back to work. You have two weeks.

    • Scott Kay

      Call your representative until they explain their position to you:

    • Jerry Kilcourse

      Eventually Mitzi Johnson and the rest of the House will run out of excuses and deal with what the majority of Vermont citizens want..legalization.

      • walter carpenter

        “Eventually Mitzi Johnson and the rest of the House will run out of excuses and deal with what the majority of Vermont citizens want..legalization.”

        Thanks, Jerry. I thank the senate on their actions with this bill. With Mass, Maine, possibly New York, and then all of Canada legalizing it, Vermont will have to finally do something other than to find more excuses.

  • Theo Talcott

    Opiate overdoses are down by 24% in Colorado. Driving accidents related to alcohol are down too. Beer consumption is down. I heard this in testimony at the House Human Health and Services Committee during Cannabis Lobbying Day. The plodding VT legislature said “wait and see in Colorado until last year.” We did and the facts are in. Legalization saves lives. Legalization is a miracle action that achieves so many of the most desirable societal goals: reducing alcohol-related accidents, addressing the opiate crisis, ending the racist prison system and drug war that feeds it.

    Last year, Legalization stalled due to concern about the opiate crisis. Now the fact show legalization reduces opiate abuse because it’s better pain medicine and people substitute cannabis if they are just trying to get high. I hope House Representatives still thinks the opiate crisis is worth taking action on, even if the answer is counter-intuitive.

    Vermonters want this. It will be politically very popular and everybody who votes for it will be bathed in a glorious green light for years to come. And if they vote against it,
    they should expect to be primaried and opposed by an awake electorate in 2018.

  • Mary Alice Bisbee

    While I do not agree with all of the comments below, I do believe that the time has come to have legislation on marijuana usage that actually has some teeth in it. The house bill was very flawed because it did not address the need for education and adequate penalties for misuse, overuse, and actual enforcement of drug quality.
    Very briefly, I had a psychotic episode after my first and only try at smoking pot in 1971 when I was 34 years old. I do believe that some of us are extremely vulnerable to usage particularly when going through traumatic changes, which was my situation.
    Though most would not say that moving to Vermont was traumatic, it was for me. Vermont is my childhood home, and although I was being pushed and pulled back here then, I am very happy to be back, now.
    However, in the process, my marriage was doomed, my adult children have disowned me, and although I have a good education and have recovered from taking the horrible schizophrenic drugs that have left me with several neuromuscular problems and the stigma of mental illness keeping me from working over the years, I know that this would never have happened to me if I was properly educated about its properties. Marijuana should never be taken when one is trying to hide from problems. Sorry for the long rant, but I believe that like alcohol which can be deadly for certain vulnerable persons or those fighting PTSD, not just children, it needs to be legalized to prevent the exploitation of more powerful illegal drug usage. My hope is that the House will take up the bill and pass it this year, or at least in the second half of the biennium.

  • Alyce Stein

    Poised to bring leadership to the House, Speaker Johnson spoke extensively about “adaptive leadership” and affirmed her conflicted view on the issue of marijuana legalization in 2016: “I don’t know what the right answer is on this one…Honestly, this is a really tough one for me.” Therein lies the conflict.

    “Adaptive Leadership” calls for ACTION based on objectivity, flexibility and an unbiased mindset. The ‘strum und drang’ cycle of watch, wait and pass the ball to another committee will never generate the “productive zone of opportunity.”

    What will? A disciplined approach and an open minded commitment to LEAD BY EXAMPLE.