BENNINGTON >> A marijuana legalization bill has "a long way to go," and may not have as much support as many think, according to the chairman of the Senate committee scheduled to vote on it Friday.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said the Senate Committee on Judiciary will vote on S.241, which would remove civil penalties for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, and if it passes it will go the Senate Committee on Finance, then to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
He said it stands about a 50-50 chance of passing before the full Senate, and the House is "completely up in the air."
"One thing I've learned through all the public hearings and testimony is that the state is split on this," he said.
He thinks there is not as much support for legalization amongst Vermonters as some polls indicate. That being said, he believes few Vermonters think there should be stiff criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
On Jan. 18, Sears' committee held a public forum in Bennington where, of the people who managed to speak within the hour and a half time frame, 15 expresses support for legalization, while 13 were against it. At least 100 people showed up to hearing. The committee held four other public forums that week, the ones in Brattleboro and Springfield that same day.
Sears said he will vote in favor of the bill if it remains in its present form, amendments to which were released Tuesday.
The amendments cover the five elements Governor Peter Shumlin said he would need to see before signing a legalization bill, those being: A legal market keeping marijuana away from children, a tax low enough to eliminate the black market, revenue from said taxes going to prevention and treatment, funds for police to deal with impaired drivers, and a ban on the sale of "edibles."
The amended bill also complies with the Cole memo, a document released by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013, which, "...provides guidance to United States Attorneys on the proper prioritization of marijuana enforcement in their districts given the number of states that have moved to legalize marijuana for medicinal, agricultural, or recreational use," according to the Department of Justice website.
Below are some of the items in the proposed amendment.
• It would equally divide revenue from marijuana taxes into four parts: Treatment, prevention, law enforcement, and the general fund. Money to address impaired driving would also train an additional 10 drug recognition experts, and fund 25 more state troopers over the next three years.
• The Agency of Transportation will expand its anti-drunken driving programs to include "drugged driving."
• It removes civil penalties for marijuana possession under one ounce by a person under 21. A person in possession of more than an ounce would still face existing criminal penalties. It would be illegal to furnish or sell marijuana to someone under 21. Those under 21 are also not allowed on the premises of marijuana establishments.
• Growing marijuana without a license would remain illegal, as would selling it without a license.
• Using marijuana in public would remain a civil offense.
• Marijuana would be included in the state's "open container" law, banning it in vehicles much like alcohol.
• Employers and landlords are not required to accommodate marijuana use or possession.
• Extracting chemicals from marijuana without a license would be illegal. This, according to Sears, covers "edibles" and marijuana byproducts. Medical dispensaries can still offer edibles to patients, provided they are in child-resistant packaging.
• Marijuana establishments will not be allowed within 1,000 feet of a school or child care center.
• Advertising of marijuana products can not be aimed at youth.
• The Department of Public Safety will establish rules for marijuana establishments and issues cultivator and retailer licenses. A person may not hold both types of license, however existing dispensaries can hold one of each. The amendment allows between 10 and 20 cultivator licenses and 20 to 40 retailer licenses to be issued before July 1, 2018.
• Licensing fees and civil penalties against establishments would go to the Department of Public Safety, "for implementation, administration, and enforcement of the provisions relating to marijuana establishments."
• Voters can prohibit marijuana establishments in their towns by a majority vote at an annual or special meeting. Local governments can also regulate such establishments in their zoning bylaws and require them to obtain licenses through the town. Towns can also increase penalties for smoking marijuana in public.
• The Commissioner of Public Safety will be required to report on an annual basis data in impaired driving, the latest on best practices for enforcement and prevention, and recommendations for any further action by the legislature.