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Pot Legalization Bill Favored by Vt. House Unlikely to Pass Senate

Published: 5/4/2017 12:04:53 AM
Modified: 5/4/2017 12:05:01 AM

Montpelier — Though a measure to legalize possession of marijuana passed a major milestone Wednesday, the bill is not on a trajectory to pass this year.

The House gave final approval on a 75-71 vote to H.170, a bill that would allow adults to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and grow small numbers of plants at home.

The vote came after months of delay amid speculation whether there was support in the House to pass the measure. That bill, however, is unlikely to go any further this year.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the soonest his chamber could consider the bill would be January, when lawmakers return for the second half of the biennium. It is not feasible for the Senate to advance the bill this year because the House’s vote came just days before adjournment, he said.

“It’s just impossible,” Sears said. “I’m sorry that it took (the House) until May to vote on a bill.”

Lawmakers expect to go home for the year at the end of this week. The Senate Judiciary Committee, the relevant panel in the upper body, ceased meeting weeks ago. However, Sears said there could be a limited path forward with a separate bill.

Debate before the House’s final vote on the bill Wednesday was more subdued than the previous day, when discussion stretched more than four hours into the night and ended shortly before midnight.

Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, offered a slew of amendments Wednesday that she said were aimed at curbing the impact legalization would have on traffic safety and children.

The House adopted two of her amendments limiting marijuana use in cars and requiring tenants to have written consent from property owners to grow marijuana.

However, the House rejected several of her other proposals, including one to classify exposing people younger than 21 to secondhand marijuana smoke as furnishing to minors. Another would have required that pot be in a locked container when in a car.

During floor debate, opponents raised concerns about legalizing marijuana at a time when opioid addiction is at crisis levels. Others argued that changing policy on marijuana could help ease the crisis.

Rep. Peter Fagan, R-Rutland, argued that allowing Vermonters to grow up to two mature and four immature plants at home would produce a large amount of pot.

By his math, the plants allowed under the bill could yield “over 1,500 marijuana cigarettes in a year in a household,” he said. “That is not a small amount.”

Fagan argued that the House has failed to take adequate testimony on the impact legalization would have on the mental health system and other aspects of the state.

“This rush to pass this bill has left out important pieces of information; we need to do no harm,” Fagan said.

Others, like Rep. Susan Buckholz, D-West Hartford, argue that the bill is a criminal justice reform that will appropriately remove penalties for responsible adult use of a substance that is already widely consumed in Vermont. She said the discussion has gotten off on a tangent and that concerns were blown out of proportion.

“Pot’s been around for so long. It has not wrecked civilization yet,” Buckholz said.

The House passed the bill on third reading by a slim four-vote margin.

After the vote, the sponsors of the bill, Reps. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, and Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland, said its passage is a significant step forward for reforming the criminal justice system.

“It’s the racial profiling that’s not going to happen, it’s the number of people that aren’t going to be incarcerated, it’s a smaller docket in the court system,” Burditt said.

Asked whether they saw a path forward for the bill this year, the three said that is up to the Senate.

Sears made clear that the timing in the session would prohibit H.170 from advancing; the bill has not yet gone through any process in the upper chamber. However, he noted that the Senate did send the House language attached to a separate bill, H.167, last month that would create a taxed and regulated system for marijuana sales.

Sears and many others in the Senate are critical of the House’s proposed model of legalization, arguing that establishing a regulated sales system is key to reducing the prominence of the black market in Vermont.

He said he will not support a legalization bill that does not include a path to establishing a system to regulate marijuana from seed to sale. Sears told reporters he had language drafted to create a commission tasked with setting up such a system.

Sears said he would like to see the issue of marijuana legalization come to a conference committee — a special panel comprising three members each from the Senate and House that convenes to negotiate the differences between versions of a bill.

“I need to find a way to get there, and I can’t get there with (H.)170 because there’s no Senate position on 170 yet,” he said.

H.167, he said, is the only “realistic vehicle” he can think of to get the issue of marijuana legalization to a conference committee before adjournment.

“It’s the only way that there’s a path to legalization this year,” Sears said.

Grad, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said that panel likely will look at H.167 in the coming days.

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