Vt., N.H. delay action on marijuana legalization bills

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

MONTPELIER — A push to create legal markets for marijuana has stalled in a Vermont House committee, and with the legislative session slated to end this week, House leadership and other lawmakers have signaled that the bill — for this year, at least — is dead. A bill in New Hampshire faced a similar fate.

After Vermont legalized limited possession and cultivation of marijuana last year, many lawmakers, and advocates, had hoped that this session the Legislature would swiftly approve a legal marketplace for cannabis.

But now, with less than a week left for legislative business, the bill, SB 54, appears to be stalled in the House Ways and Means Committee, and lawmakers have indicated they need additional time to work on the policy before the full House votes on the measure.

House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said on Tuesday that “it’s looking less likely every day” that the House will pass the cannabis bill this year.

“This is the last week and it’s fluid,” Krowinski said. “But it’s looking less and less likely.”

Krowinski said House Democrats are “totally committed” to creating a legal marijuana market and if the legislation does not move this session, they will “finish it early next year.”

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee voted, 5-0, last Thursday to recommend HB 481 be “re-referred” back to committee rather than go to the Senate floor, the Concord Monitor reported. The entire Senate now must vote on the recommendation to re-refer. If approved, it would push action on the bill to 2020.

HB 481 would make it legal to buy, consume, sell and grow cannabis as well as set up regulation and taxation of sales and licensing and regulation of places that would sell cannabis.

Gov. Chris Sununu has said he would veto the bill.

Since the beginning of the Vermont legislative session, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, repeatedly has said she supports legalizing a market for cannabis, but that it has not been among her top priorities.

Like Gov. Phil Scott, Johnson has said, she would prefer to take more time to hone legislation that would create legal marijuana sales — particularly provisions that would fund education to prevent youth drug use and roadside safety initiatives.

In an interview on Friday, Johnson said she was “willing to wait” until next year to pass the bill.

“My attitude all along on that bill is that we need to be thorough on the policy,” she said. “The policy needs to drive the timeline; the timeline cannot drive the policy.”

Another challenge for the bill this year has been finding agreement between the House and Senate.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, one of the lead proponents of regulating marijuana sales, said changes made by House members have made it impossible for the Senate to support.

“We cannot agree with it,” Sears said on Monday, noting the Senate’s opposition to roadside safety concessions made by House members.

Members of the lower chamber have made changes to the Senate proposal that would allow the controversial saliva test — which shows the presence of drugs but not impairment — to be used by law enforcement and for police to be able to make traffic stops if people are not wearing their seat belts.

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive and an outspoken legalization advocate, said he was disappointed that a legal cannabis market in Vermont likely has been delayed another year. House Democrats are “more nervous than they need to be” about the legislation, Zuckerman said.

“It’s clearly a missed opportunity to bring the underground market above ground, generate revenue to put towards prevention, highway safety, and invest in any number of things,” he said.

“And there’s a few people at the top of the House that are really a challenge on this issue,” Zuckerman added.

Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said she’s concerned about the cost of regulating the legal marijuana market in its first two or three years of operation.

In the bill as written, the regulatory panel that would oversee the market, the Cannabis Control Board, would cost the state $1 million per year. But since the state wouldn’t see revenue from cannabis sales for more than two years, lawmakers would have to find about $2.5 million to keep the panel running, at first.

“I don’t want to use tax revenue to run the commission if I can help it,” Ancel said.

She said licensing fees for marijuana businesses should pay for Cannabis Control Board costs.

Ancel’s committee has been working on the bill only since the beginning of May and has discussed it a handful of times.

“We’ve done a ton of work on it, but we’re just at the point now where it’s hard to get the committee together,” Ancel said. “It’s a big bill, and we didn’t get much time.”

Many have advocated for a legal market on the grounds that it would reduce the state’s illegal drug sales. And senators this session have said last year’s legalization of limited marijuana possession has only bolstered the illicit market.

“The illegal market is happy the bill is dead,” Sears said.