Courts & Corrections

Vermont House OKs one ounce marijuana possession

Chip Conquest
Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger ​

Late Tuesday evening, the House approved a bill that would legalize possession of marijuana for adults.

The measure, H.170, would remove all penalties for adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. It would also allow adults to grow up to two mature and four immature marijuana plants per household.

The legislation would not, however, create a regulatory structure for pot sales.

The House approved the bill 74 to 68. It will come up for final approval Wednesday.

While the vote represents a significant victory for advocates of marijuana legalization, the finish line is a long way off.

For all of VTDigger’s stories about marijuana legalization, click here.

The timing — just five days before lawmakers are expected to break for the year — makes passage in the Senate highly unlikely this year. H.170 has not yet been through the Senate, though the upper chamber did send a separate bill to the House last month that would set up a regulatory and tax system for retail sales of marijuana.

If the bill lands on Gov. Phil Scott’s desk, there is no guarantee he will sign it. Scott is not staunchly opposed to marijuana legalization, but he has said the timing isn’t right.

Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, explained the bill on the House floor Tuesday evening. He argued that penalizing marijuana users has not been effective.

“It’s time to admit that we lack a rational justification for continuing this prohibition,” he said.

A law passed in 2013 removed criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, which previously was a misdemeanor offense. Since then, possession of small amounts of pot has been subject to a civil penalty. Fines start at $200 for possession of under an ounce.

Floor debate began after a dinner break with nearly half an hour of confused discussion about whether the bill should be sent to the Transportation Committee for further review, amid arguments that H.170 would have impacts on road safety. The House twice defeated Republican-led efforts to send the bill to committee, which would have delayed action.

The House adopted an amendment offered by Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, that would extend a prohibition on open alcohol containers in vehicles to marijuana.

Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, offered an amendment that would have scrapped legalization of marijuana possession and changed penalties for possessing a marijuana plant from a criminal charge to a civil offense.

Donahue opposed removing all penalties for possession.

“I think the civil penalty is actually really important,” she said.

A civil fine makes a statement about “our social message,” Donahue said. “We’re not endorsing this, we’re not saying this is all fine and good, we’re not sanctioning it,” she said.

Conquest said the civil penalties under the decriminalization law are “not nothing for a lot of people.”

Donahue’s amendment was defeated.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, targeted youth use of marijuana and road safety in two amendments. One would delay legalization until implementation of a plan to beef up a program to educate youth about the risks of using pot.

Others argued the state already has a robust education and prevention system in place.

“I’m afraid I don’t see what we’re going to gain from trying to revamp a program that works,” Rep. Susan Buckholz, D-White River Junction, said.

The amendment was defeated with 61 in favor and 78 opposed.

Another amendment offered by Browning would have delayed legalization until a roadside test similar to those used for detecting alcohol impairment is in place, or until the number of law enforcement officers trained to detect drug impairment is substantially increased.

“Why not just be careful?” Browning said.

Conquest said drug-impaired driving is an issue already and drug recognition experts are an effective way to approach the issue.

“That doesn’t seem very likely to change a whole lot if we legalize marijuana in this fashion,” Conquest said.

Browning’s amendment was defeated with 77 opposed and 64 in favor.

Rep. Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland, a sponsor of the bill, made an impassioned plea for support.

He argued changing the policy could lead to savings in Vermont’s criminal justice system and broader justice reform.

Others raised concerns that the bill goes too far. Burditt’s colleague from Rutland, Rep. Peter Fagan, disputed the characterization of the amounts that would be legalized as “small.”

“We’re talking about people in the state of Vermont getting and staying high,” he said.

The House also defeated an amendment offered by Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, D-Burlington, that would create a system to tax and regulate marijuana sales.

O’Sullivan drew language from the amendment the Senate passed last month, which she characterized as a “well-thought-out bill.” The proposal would license operations to grow and sell marijuana on many different scales and tax sales.

“This is what education, prevention, legalization and regulation looks like,” he said.

The proposal was not backed by the House Judiciary Committee, Conquest said, because the measure has not been vetted by the relevant committees.

O’Sullivan’s amendment failed, with 42 in favor, 99 opposed.

The debate ended in a roll call vote shortly after 11:30 p.m. The bill will come up for final approval in the House Wednesday.

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  • MikeParent

    We’d all be better off if the police focused on crimes that have actual victims!
    Cannabis is safevthan the items you can purchase at every convenience store!
    It’s time to end treating it as the Bogeyman. Irrational rear, such as Rep Fagan displayed are a sign of either bias or ignorance.

    FACT Marijuana is less addictive and less harmful than Caffeine, let alone Alcohol and Tobacco; (3 Scientific Studies) to
    BTW, Dr Henningfield is a former NIDA Staffer;.
    Addictiveness of Marijuana – ProCon.Org

    • walter carpenter

      “let alone Alcohol and Tobacco”

      And these damage our society far more than marijuana ever thought of doing, but they have always had more money behind them to keep them legal.

  • Norm Etkind

    I’ll suggest a plan for the Senate (or the House).

    Amend the House bill to allow people over 21 to purchase at the dispensaries.

    Those purchasing without a prescription would pay a significant sales tax.

    Considering the lateness of the hour, passing a full legalization and retail sale outside this concept would be difficult.

    At least in this manner people could purchase legally and be sure that they have a safe unadulterated product with known levels of active ingredients.

    • robert bristow-johnson

      i agree with the end goal, but Norm, you don’t know that the amended bill will pass the House.

      i think continuing to take baby steps might be the safest:
      1. legalize medical marijuana. See if civilization comes to an end in Vermont.
      2. decriminalize marijuana. See if civilization comes to an end in Vermont.
      3. legalize small quantities of marijuana, allow for home growth. See if civilization comes to an end in Vermont.
      4. regulate and tax overground sale of marijuana, allow for commercial agricultural growth and regulate. See if civilization comes to an end in Vermont.

      we can wait patiently.

      • Frank Rudolph

        I’m sorry, but cannabis prohibition has always been a tempest in a teapot. We have waited long enough. The legal system has damaged people to no avail and wasted enough cash on a quixotic attempt to eliminate a behavior among its citizens that has never been shown to have any significant deleterious effects. We sanction and tax substances that are decidedly toxic, dangerous and result in many thousands dead every year and yet not a single death has ever been definitively attributed to cannabis. Ever. Anyone who has studied the history of this issue would have long since learned that marijuana prohibition has its roots in ignorance of both pharmacology, physiology and psychology. Its deeper roots are embedded in outright racism (against Mexicans and Blacks during the 1930s). I and most of the American public have lost patience with this long ago. Get it over with and eliminate the prohibition, now. End of discussion. And finally, even if you accept the scientifically questionable tenet that cannabis is a dangerous substance rather than a mild euphoric, we know definitively that it has nothing to do with opioid addiction because it acts on a completely different part of the neural system. And if you truly worry about our children being damaged by it, then the best approach is to legalize and regulate it. Right now, children have a much easier time buying weed at school because the criminals who sell it don’t care that it is illegal. They thrive on the risk they take, because it enriches them. But children have a very hard time getting alcohol because legal distributors will never risk their licenses or freedom from jail by selling to minors. Once it is regulated, the motivation to sell illegally disappears because the profit motive is removed and they will be as safe from cannabis as they are from alcohol, today. Every state and every country that has legalized cannabis has experienced reduced crime and either level or reduced overall addiction rates. If you don’t believe, me, then I dare you to read about Portugal’s outcomes. They went much further than legalizing weed. They legalized all drugs in 2000 and their positive outcomes are staggering:

        • robert bristow-johnson

          Listen Frank, I pretty much agree with every sentiment. But, other than check out how your House rep voted and providing feedback, other than organizing and demonstrating to the legislature what you’re saying here, all’s we have, really, is to wait patiently, say “yea” when we move in the right direction and “boo” when we don’t.

          both of my reps voted “nay” and they are from different parties. i was kinda disappointed and i contacted the one rep who is in the party i most often vote for.

    • Norm Etkind, The dispensary owners would love to own the market. They already have a monopoly on Medical cannabis sales and are not serving the patients with safe products now. Many individuals have informed me that the product that they are buying is contaminated and I understand that 2 of the dispensaries are taking contaminated dried cannabis that the patients will not buy and trying to process the moldy buds into oils to be sold to patients. I do not say this lightly. The product produced by the small growers in Vermont is clean as they sell to a small group of friends. You should always know your grower to get fresh and clean cannabis.

      • Norm Etkind

        If what you say is true, that should be corrected regardless of any changes to statute and is therefore not a reason to oppose this step.

        • I agree that this should be corrected. In fact the current version of S.16 has a provision that will require the AG Department to independently test the product. Today the testing is done in house. This will keep the fox out of the hen house. We fought for and are fighting for a fair system that includes everyone. If you give licenses to a few and arrest those who are denied a path to a legal business, then you create a double standard and give no one encouragement to come out of the woods. Remember, this money is not new money. Vermonters pay for food and shelter with the money that they currently make by selling a crop.We need open licenses. We need to include the artisan growers. Why make it legal for wealthy investors and leave others to be arrested?

  • Clancy DeSmet

    Final approval should happen this session. There’s no need to wait. H.170 is a responsible, incremental step forward for cannabis policy in Vermont. Poor Vermonters are negatively impacted by civil and criminal penalties. Limited home cultivation provides a small-scale alternative to the illicit or underground market. Vermonters strongly support eliminating penalties for cannabis possession, and prohibition has been more harmful than cannabis itself. Teen usage has not risen in WA, CA, AK, or CO since legalization of cannabis.

  • Scott Kay

    The republican push to send H.170 back to committee last night was started by Rep. Larry Cupoli of Rutland City. A man that clearly has issues with the development of a modern marijuana policy, yet will not acknowledge a single messages that I have sent hoping to start any sort of dialogue. Considering Mr. Cupoli is currently my direct representative to the Vermont legislature, I am dissatisfied and disappointed with his current actions.

    • Jerry Kilcourse

      It seems Mr. Cupoli doesn’t understand his responsibility to be accountable to his constituents regardless of whether or not they agree with him. He at least owes them a response. Maybe he needs to be replaced. That’s why we have elections.

    • Scott Kaufman, I agree that the tactics used last night to bring this bill down were absurd. I take particular umbrage with the statements by Representative Francis “Topper” Fawn from Barrie Town. I was in a Human Services Committee meeting where the issue of youth prevention was discussed. Rep. Fawn made statements that contradict the testimony given by Dr, McSherry and a gentleman from Texas who was on the phone. I would ask the ethics committee to investigate his conduct in this matter. On the day of the meeting I witnessed Rep. Fawn chastise the witness that his committee had asked to testify. He cut Dr. Sherry off when he did not like what the Dr. had to say regarding youth prevention and youth use of all substances. This is not representative government. This is just sad.

  • Christopher Hamilton

    This is a good first step.
    What Vermont does NOT need is a big regulatory agency to administer people growing the equivalent of tomatoes on their back deck. Keep it small and simple.
    It’s not like the activity isn’t already widespread.
    Hope you guys in the Senate can come around to this sort of beginning.

  • John farrell

    It is far better to grow your own cannabis in your backyard rather than make an illegal purchase from someone who sells on the black market. Every day the legislature procrastinates on legalization is more dollars in the dealers pockets