Prospects for pot bill are looking dim

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As lawmakers wrapped up crossover week — the deadline for most legislation — one high-profile bill didn't make the cutoff, and its future in the House is in doubt.

H.170, a bill that would legalize adult possession of limited amounts of marijuana, is still on the wall of the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill was a scaled-down version of a Senate proposal last year that would have created a Colorado-model regulated market for pot.

The House proposal does not include a regulatory structure for taxing marijuana sales. Instead, it removes all penalties for adult possession of a small amount of marijuana — a model adopted in Washington, D.C. Sponsors dubbed the measure "decrim 2.0" and billed it as an add-on to a 2014 Vermont law that decriminalized possession of less than 1 ounce.

Decrim 2.0 debuted with strong support from the leadership in the Judiciary Committee. It even had the backing of Rep. Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland, whose dissenting vote last year helped extinguish a Senate marijuana legalization bill.

Through committee review, this year's proposal was downgraded in scope. The panel started with a provision that would have legalized possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana, but then dropped the amount to 1 ounce. The current draft would allow for possession of up to two mature plants.

But as the committee worked furiously to pass out several measures ahead of crossover deadline, H.170 was not among them.

The inertia fueled speculation that there is not support for the bill on the House floor. The legislation was not on House Speaker Mitzi Johnson's list of high-priority bills.

Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, the committee vice chair and a sponsor of the legislation, said he has not given up hope that the bill could move forward.

"We're not taking any more testimony. We've done our work," he said. "Those of us in the committee would like to see progress."

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said the failure to meet Friday's crossover deadline is an indication the bill doesn't have the votes.

"My understanding is that there is not enough support on the floor to pass the bill in its current status," Turner said.

The bill is not a partisan issue, he said, though many House Republicans oppose it.

House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said leadership is working with members to answer questions about the bill.

"People are still looking for more information," Krowinski said.

As many members of the House Judiciary Committee had questions about the proposal, many other representatives do as well, she said.

"We're not going to rush that. We're going to do it right," Krowinski said.

Asked if failure to move the bill out of committee by crossover deadline meant the bill would not move forward, Krowinski said, "No."

The bill could pass out of House committees and move on to the Senate Rules Committee.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he will be willing to take the measure up if the House panel moves forward by Friday.

Sears is a key supporter of legalization.

"The majority of my committee, which hasn't changed since last year, would prefer a regulated system," Sears said. "In the course of a legislative session, there's always compromise that occurs."

"We believe that having at least a vote in the House, a positive vote in the House, would be a good step forward," Sears said.

As prospects for the bill to meet crossover deadline dimmed Friday, legalization opponents gathered in the Statehouse to urge lawmakers to oppose H.170, as well as a bill that would expand the state's medical marijuana system, S.16.

Mariah Sanderson, of the Vermont chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said legalization and the loosening of restrictions on medical marijuana could result in more young people believing marijuana use does not have risks. She said as a mother and a Vermont resident, she fears the impact changes in marijuana law would have on communities.

She asked lawmakers not to rush into changes in marijuana policy. "When it comes to creating sensible drug policy, this is not a race to see who should get there first," she said.

Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, president of the Vermont Police Association, thanked legislators "for hearing the concerns of law enforcement" and not passing H.170.

"We have concerns about the safety of our children, the safety of our communities, their health and welfare and the safety of our highways," Merkel said. "We're glad the legislators heard our message and followed our lead."

But advocates for legalization remain optimistic that a bill could move forward this year.

Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project said there is an appetite for legalization in the Senate, which means the crossover deadline could be more flexible — but the delayed vote did raise some concerns, he said.

"It's not dead, but we need people to call and email their representatives if they want this to happen," Simon said.

Simon urged Vermonters to support the measure, noting that legalization is already moving forward in the nearby states of Massachusetts and Maine.

"In our view, this is the very least that Vermont should be doing in the year 2017," Simon said. "There's just no reason not to do this."

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