Notes from the Senate: Highlights of marijuana legalization bill

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Last week the Senate voted to pass a bill that would allow legalization and regulation of marijuana. It will be posted on the Legislative website by the end of the week. It is S.241 as passed by the Senate. Here are some of the reasons I sponsored and voted for the bill, and some of the highlights — what it is and what it isn't.

For many years I have felt that our policy of prohibition has not worked — not for youth, for law enforcement and not for the citizens who have become criminals because of it. In 2014 the Rand group was commissioned to report on the potential for legalization in Vermont. In 2015 the Government Operations committee, which I chair, took testimony on the report and how it should be done in Vermont if it was to be done. We heard from everyone who had something to say - no one was denied a voice. From those hearings, Senator Benning (who is also on the committee) and I cosponsored S241. In January 2016 it went to the Judiciary Committee where testimony was taken. At the beginning of the session, Senator Sears, Chair, stated that there was no way he would vote for legalization. After hearing all the testimony and the facts, he changed his mind and became a strong supporter of legalization and regulation. As happens with all bill, it is different than it was as introduced.

My main reasons for support are these. We heard from kids that if they wanted to get alcohol they had to find someone over 21 willing to buy it for them, if they wanted marijuana they only had to go to the bathroom in their school. So if regulation makes it harder for youth to obtain, let's regulate. We also heard that dealers usually have more than marijuana and were not at all concerned about giving other substances to youth. We heard from people who have records because they choose marijuana when their neighbors who drank alcohol do not have records (in fact the state has criminalized one substance and actually sells you the other one). While many professional organizations opposed it, we did hear from individual law enforcement officers, pediatricians, medical doctors, and substance abuse counselors that it was the right thing to do since our current policy doesn't work.

It is hard to summarize all the testimony, reading, etc into a short explanation but am willing to talk with anyone who would like more information. I should point out that there is a report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area that purports to give statistics from Colorado. We spoke to the Colorado officials and they told us that this group that sounds like it might be objective is actually an arm of the DEA and their statistics are questionable.

So what is in the bill. It would license and regulate the cultivation and retail of marijuana for adult use. This means that the product will be tested, taxed (currently 25 percent sales tax) and only those with licenses will be allowed to grow or sell. The regulation will be under the Department of Public Safety and the Agency of Agriculture.

It will not change the medical marijuana program.

There are no edibles (they will still e available in the dispensaries for medical patients), there are no lounges, no use on public properties. Landlords and employers can restrict just as they can tobacco and alcohol. Local communities can vote to be "dry" just as they can alcohol. Even if they are not dry they can still regulate time, place and manner.

Youth: under 21 use will be just a sit is for alcohol. Providing to anyone under 21 will have the same consequences as providing alcohol — providing to under 18 will have a double penalty. There is $350,000 to the Department of Health to immediately begin an education/prevention program.

A couple of major concerns with the bill are home grow and what is seen as the corporate model. There is not home grow in this bill. It is illegal now, it will remain so — it will not be more illegal. What the bill does have is a committee that will come back next year with a report on home grow. It should be noted that the other states did not start with home grow and that some are now going there. So with this bill there is the possibility of home grow in the future, without it there is not that possibility. I know some felt that it is better to have no bill but I do not agree. If this bill becomes law it is a huge leap toward ending prohibition and instituting more rationale regulation. And I believe this really is our only chance of passage for at least the next four to six years.

Any money generated through the tax will be divided evenly between prevention/education, treatment, and the justice system including courts and law enforcement. There has been some suggestion that the additional money for law enforcement will intensify efforts against home growers. I do not think this is accurate. We have issues with trafficking, especially other drugs, and impaired driving in general, this will be the target of that money.

The other issue is the corporate model. The bill contains a number of provisions that are aimed at keeping it from becoming a monopoly or open only to the wealthy. Only Vermonters can own an establishment, only Vermonters can invest, no one can have an interest in more than one establishment, there is a cap on the size of cultivators. In the first year there would be 27 cultivators, 10 up to 1,000 square feet, four up to 2,500, 10 up to 5,000 and three up to 10,000 — none larger. The second year would double those numbers. (Our original bill had many more cultivators but this is a compromise). There will be 15 retailers the first year and double that the second year.

The bill now goes to the House. They are talking about it going to five committees so it sounds as if they are looking to defeat it without having a vote. In the Senate it officially went to three committees, and five more suggested changes. The chairs of three of those opposed the bill but chose not let it die in their committees. I hope the House would do the same and not let it just dies because each committee feels the need to officially "take the bill." If it makes it out of the House, there will be a conference committee and then on to the governor.

The bill is not ideal but it is a hug leap in the right direction. And I believe it is the right thing to do. We can make changes, without it we remain where we are. My belief is that it will limit access for youth (and make it safer for those who do try it), it will undercut the black market, it will not create criminals out of citizens who use it, and it will lead to more rationale drug laws.

State Sen. Jeanette White, a Democrat, represents the Windham District.


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