Pot regulation bill will be waiting when lawmakers return in January


MONTPELIER >> Working in a crowded Statehouse conference room, the Senate Government Operations Committee roughed out a sketch of what a regulated cannabis market in Vermont could look like.

Legislative attorneys anticipate getting a first draft of the bill to committee chair Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, by the end of the month.

It's a tight, yet feasible, timeline to get the legislation ready for introduction upon lawmakers' return to Montpelier in early January.

The preliminary legislation proposes a five-tiered licensure structure that would allow some Vermonters to cultivate plants at home in a 100-square-foot plot. Other licenses would regulate transporters of marijuana, product manufacturers, researchers and retailers.

The lawmakers shaped an approach to legalization that would roll out a regulatory structure over time, creating an independent board, similar to the Public Service Board or the Green Mountain Care Board, charged with ongoing oversight and management.

But the committee also opted to stay silent on some of the most controversial topics within the debate — including whether to allow edible products — deferring to a commission that would be created by the bill to oversee the implementation of the law in the short-term.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, a strong proponent of pot legalization, backed the idea for a commission to work through some of the more controversial issues. When the committee delegates the issues of edibles to the commission, he told the three-dozen onlookers, they are "putting it in the hands of people who understand the issue better than we do."

Sen. Anthony Pollina, D/P-Washington, had a starker take on the matter, asserting "I don't think anybody should expect a bill like this to pass this year" if edibles are part of the legislation.

The committee solicited input from the meeting's attendees, a practice that White defended, telling the crowd, "I think that it is important for us to ask you."

But while many were eager to chime in as the five lawmakers pounded out elements of a draft bill, others were not impressed.

Rutland City Mayor Chris Louras, who stopped by the committee meeting for part of the day, criticized the process, noting that he has "never seen such a free flow, stream-of-consciousness committee process in my life, and I don't think it bodes well for the state. This isn't a process," Louras said, "it's a circus."

A member of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns board, Louras said that he is strongly against the proposal to legalize marijuana, and has heard from many of his constituents in Rutland that they are also against it.

For Louras, Colorado's experience with legalization is a clear warning sign that Vermont should not go down that path. He referred to a study of hospitalizations related to marijuana published in September by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area that found that the annual average of 5,937 visits between 2009 and 2012 leaped up to an annual average of 9,865 visits in 2013 and 2014.

Meanwhile, many in the Statehouse are hung up by health concerns.

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, a member of the committee, hasn't yet decided if he'll put his name on the bill. He described himself as "open-minded" but noted, "I'm not there yet."

Bray, who comes from a family of doctors, has reservations on the grounds of public health. In the course of the trajectory the bill takes through legislative committee, he hopes that the proposal will be thoroughly vetted by lawmakers on the health committees.

"It's a long way from here till May," Bray said.

Benning, when asked if he plans to sponsor the bill, answered "probably." The Northeast Kingdom senator is still mulling the dates that the laws would take effect. His primary concern is reducing the criminal market for marijuana and increasing the economic development aspects as quickly as possible.

White answered emphatically that she plans to put her name on the bill as a sponsor.

She's hoping that that the bill will be able to wind its way through both legislative chambers by the end of the session in May — which will also conclude the biennium.

Despite the fact that Senate Government Operations has taken more than 50 hours of testimony on the topic this calendar year, White sees room for more information. Her goal is to work through some of the big questions in the likely next stop for the bill — Senate Judiciary, of which she is also a member.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of that committee, plans to take up the bill in the second week of the legislative session.

The Bennington Democrat has "many concerns," he said by phone Thursday, but he is gearing up to thoroughly weigh the proposal. Sears plans to hold public hearings on the issue, including some outside of the Statehouse in other parts of the state to gauge public sentiment.

For Sears, public health and reducing overall marijuana use needs to be a core goal of the bill.

"If we're going to do this, the only reason I can think of is prohibition is not working," Sears said. "If prohibition is not working, how do we eliminate or lower the use of the black market."


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