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Area Lawmakers Remain Skeptical of Legal Marijuana in Vt.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, March 04, 2016
White River Junction — Although a bill legalizing the recreational use of marijuana passed 17-12 in the state Senate, some Upper Valley lawmakers are skeptical of its chances in the House largely because of questions they have about the wisdom of moving forward with legalization.

“It’s got a pretty steep climb in the House, to tell you the truth,” said House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, on Wednesday.

People’s perception of marijuana use has changed, she said, and there’s an understanding that indulging in pot isn’t much different than having a beer or a cocktail in the comfort of one’s home. But there are also worries about issues such as regulation, enforcement and keeping the drug out of the hands of children.

“There’s a lot of concerns that people have before I think we’ll see passage of legalization in the House,” Copeland Hanzas said.

The bill the Senate passed last week would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and license 10 small-scale grow operations that would be capped at 1,000 square feet in size, according to VtDigger.

As a teacher and mother of three, Copeland Hanzas said, she wants to see a bill where resources are devoted to keeping marijuana out of the hands of children. She has also heard from neighbors and constituents who tell her “it’s all in the details.”

“I’m not convinced that we’re ready to move forward with legalization,” Copeland Hanzas said, but the House will do its due diligence.

A number of legislators expressed reservations about the bill but declined to be specific about their concerns or speak in depth about the issue.

Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, said the legislators she’s spoken to are concerned about the bill and will not to rush ahead without first deliberating carefully.

“I think there’s a pretty tepid thought about it in the House,” said Sweaney.

She’s been a supporter of legalization in the past, but said with the opioid epidemic still not under control, she’s now uncertain.

“Unless it’s done correctly, there are a lot of questions that I still have,” Sweaney said.

Rep. Sandy Haas, P-Rochester, said she believes prohibition is a failed policy, but understands that the bill could face resistance from colleagues with legitimate concerns.

“I think the details of how we go forward are very important and there are a lot of questions about what those details should look like,” she said.

Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, said he’s opposed to the Senate’s bill because of worries over costs, stresses on the health care system and enforcement issues.

“To get this thing up and off the ground will cost a lot of money to begin with,” said Tate, who argued that enforcement and regulation could increase Vermont’s budget.

Children growing up in Vermont already have enough stress without normalizing the use of marijuana, he said. Instead of pushing for legalization, Tate said, the state should instead be focusing on training law enforcement to catch impaired drivers.

The Senate’s bill provides funding for 25 State Police troopers, and 10 additional officers to be trained as drug recognition experts, who are trained to recognize impairment from drugs other than alcohol, according to the Burlington Free Press. The state has fewer than 40 troopers who have been trained in drug recognitionbut is currently training 11 more.

The bill calls for a 25 percent sales tax, and between $20 million and $75 million in revenue would be directed to permitting, law enforcement, and drug treatment and prevention programs.

Police associations also came out against the bill last month in an open letter to VtDigger. Among the signatories was Orange County Sheriff Bill Bohnyak, who is president of the Vermont Sheriffs Association.

“I don’t believe this will get very far,” Tate said of the bill, while also acknowledging that the House seems to be headed in the direction of eventually endorsing legalization.

Rep. Patsy French, D-Randolph, spent Town Meeting Day speaking with voters about legalization and found the most vocal constituents were against the Senate’s bill. But then she looked at a random group of Sen. Bill Doyle’s annual state survey forms.

In 100 forms filled out by Randolph residents, she found 50 were in favor, 38 were opposed and the remaining 12 were unsure.

“It was a little surprising to me,” French said.

Her legislative colleagues are likely just as divided as voters are, she said.

“I think people are all over the place,” French said. “Some are totally in favor, some are not.”

She finds herself on the fence about the bill, but would like legalization to hold off a few years to allow Vermont to collect data from other states where recreational marijuana is legal. French would particularly like to know how legalization impacts children, impaired driving rates and the cost to local law enforcement.

While the Senate bill passed by a five-vote majority, the Upper Valley’s delegation was split on legalization.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, the Lyndon Republican whose Caledonia district includes several Bradford-area towns, voted for the measure, as did Sens. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, and Mark MacDonald, D-Williamstown.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Quechee, and Sens. Alice Nitka, D-Ludlow, and Jane Kitchel, D-Danville, voted no.

“I think there’s still a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford, said of the upcoming House fight.

He has the same questions about legalization’s effect on law enforcement and children too, but is also concerned about how transactions and the financial implications will be handled.

“I haven’t really gotten a clear answer as to how that’s going to be addressed,” Christie said.

Because the federal government classifies marijuana as an illegal narcotic, banks looking to do business with legal pot dispensaries and retail outlets often find themselves in a legal quagmire.

The federal government issued guidelines in 2014, allowing banks to do business with legal dispensaries and growers, according to The Denver Post. But those regulations have been challenged by the country’s financial institutions.

This January, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed a lawsuit from Fourth Corner Credit Union, a state-chartered pot bank that claimed it was illegally being denied access to the country’s financial system by the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Without financial backing, some dispensaries become a cash-only business, and a target for theft.

Christie said it’s premature at this point to decide how he’ll vote. But one thing is clear: He wants to know more.

“Until my questions are answered, I’m not making a decision,” he said.

The legislation will likely first come before the House Judiciary Committee when legislators return from this week’s break.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.