MONTPELIER — Whether recreational marijuana becomes legal in Vermont following this legislative session is anyone's guess.
But the public has another opportunity to make their opinions known this Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the State House, where House committees on Judiciary and Government Operations are holding a hearing.
"Support among Vermonters continues to pour in with large numbers joining the Coalition, liking our Facebook page and wanting to 'stay informed' with updates and alerts from the Coalition. Unfortunately, I think it is more difficult for people to demonstrate that support at forums and public hearings because they worry about how their reputations will be impacted if they take what is viewed as a pro-pot stance," said Laura Subin, director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana. "As I testified to the House Judiciary committee last week, there continues to be a culture of fear that undermines the public discourse on marijuana policy.
State representatives are taking testimony on S.241, a bill that would legalize and regulate the drug for adult use. The legislation addresses distribution, taxation, budgeting and law enforcement, a press release stated. People can sign up to 30 minutes before the hearing and each person can testify for a maximum of two minutes. Testimony will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis. Not everyone may be able to testify.
Subin said her group has heard from many people who are disappointed with home cultivation remaining illegal under the bill and that penalties for simple possession above the one-ounce limit would not be reduced.
"Many, certainly including myself, believe that these further steps are critical to genuine criminal justice system reform. We are glad that the version of the bill that passed the Senate at least included an accelerated timeframe for considering home grow by the commission that would be created by the bill and hope that cultivation of a few plants would be legalized by the time the rest of the legislation would go into effect in 2018," she said. "People are also concerned about fair access to an emerging marijuana industry for small farmers. The amendment that passed on the floor of the Senate increased the number of licenses for smaller cultivation operations and reduced the fees for those licenses is widely viewed as an important step in the right direction in this regard."
While Windham County Democratic Committee Chairman Brandon Batham does not plan on providing any testimony Thursday, his group has adopted a resolution in support of marijuana legalization and regulation. That county committee joined the Washington County Democratic Committee. And Subin expects at least two other county committees to consider resolutions in the next couple of months.
"We, the Windham County Democratic Committee, call on local, state and federal officials to work together to: Regulate and tax marijuana, limiting its use to those 21 and older. We support the ongoing initiative in the Vermont Legislature to legalize and regulate marijuana for adult use," the resolution stated. "The Windham County Democratic Committee resolves to join the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana."
Batham said he will continue talking with lawmakers about the matter and has met with some of them already. He said he thinks the House committees deserve to hear from experts at the public hearing.
Feeling strongly about not including any individual reasons for support inside the resolution, Batham said he thinks county committee members have their own and cited their diversity of backgrounds.
"There are a number of them," he said. "I think having a uniform reason or set of them would not be to our advantage."
The resolution should come to no one's surprise due to Windham County having a long history being "a thought leader on progressive issues like this" and electing "thought leaders on progressive issues like this," he added. Approximately 30 out of about 60 members of his committee voted on its adoption at a March 14 meeting.
"The next step is to make it clear to legislators that we will support them and be behind them if they vote for this legislation, especially in the House," Batham said. "I intend, as county chair, to communicate that up at the State House. I'm in Montpelier up at the State House often. I think, as chair, I have a really good working relationship with our delegates."
The amount of support from state representatives is difficult to tell, said Subin.
"We believe that, as happened in the Senate, the more time law makers have to review the evidence the more they will see that the current system is failing on all fronts and that whatever harms are associated with marijuana would be better addressed by a regulated system," she said.
So far, Sen. David Zuckerman, D-Chittenden County, has heard concerns from other legislators saying it's a gateway drug and that it should stay illegal. On the other side, he said he's heard lawmakers say it's not harmful and that it's time to end the black market.
"We don't track how many messages we get regarding one specific bill or pros or cons," Zuckerman said. "We have nothing to do with that. That's all on the floors."
Along with other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he held several forums around the state on Jan. 18. Roughly a month later, the Senate approved a bill. Gov. Peter Shumlin applauded the Senate and urged the House to do the same.
Hearings on the subject began in 2001 and a medical marijuana registry was enacted in 2004, Sen. Dick Sears, R-Bennington, pointed out at a forum in Brattleboro. Dispensaries were authorized by the Legislature in 2011. Small amounts of marijuana were decriminalized two years later.
Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro, said she wants to attend the hearing on Thursday. She's on the Transportation Committee and has concerns about impaired driving.
"We have been looking at a saliva test, which is a way to determine what drugs are in a person's system," said Burke. "Philosophically, I'm probably leaning towards saying 'yes' because I feel it's better to regulate something than have it in the shadows."
After hearing about four bicycle fatalities in the state, all involving drugs or alcohol, Burke has some reservations. And there's the issue of marijuana more easily getting into the hands of teenagers. But she also worries about marijuana being potentially laced in the current black-market distribution of it.
Rep. Ann Manwaring, whose district spans Wilmington, Whitingham and Halifax, said she does not support the bill.
"It's unknown whether it will pass the House or not," she said. "I don't support it."
The Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington County, poll handed out to voters from 145 Vermont towns and cities during annual Town Meeting Day this year has the issue "almost split," Manwaring pointed out.
A total of 10,708 returns on the poll resulted in 42 percent saying "yes" to a question on whether Vermont should legalize marijuana while 44 percent said "no" and 14 percent were not sure.
The next question — "Are you concerned about the increased use of opiates in Vermont?" — saw 92 percent of those polled saying "yes" and 5 percent saying "no."
"I find those two questions and the answers, one after the other, very interesting," said Manwaring.
"This percentage breakdown in the Doyle Poll seems about right," said Rep. Laura Sibilia, whose district covers Dover, Wardsboro, Readsboro, Stamford, Searsburg and a section of Whitingham, when asked how the House was leaning.
Sibilia said she is hearing that the preliminary walkthrough of the bill is taking longer than some people expected.
Contact Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.