Vermont pro-pot forces take solace where they can

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MONTPELIER >> After a series of stinging defeats last week, supporters of legalizing marijuana in Vermont say there still are some positive signs.

The House voted against a Senate-passed legalization measure 121-28. It also declined to expand Vermont's decriminalization law to lighten penalties for marijuana offenses. But the Legislature's Joint Justice Oversight Committee will continue studying the issue during the summer and fall.

The committee usually meets six times during the "off-season," when the full Legislature is not in session. It tracks developments in the state's prison as well as judicial and related programs and prepares recommendations for when the House and Senate reconvene the following January. This committee plans to meet six extra times this year to focus on marijuana policy.

"I think it's important to keep the conversation going and continue to monitor states that have passed legalization," said Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown. She's both chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the joint committee.

"One of the overwhelming things that we heard during testimony is that Vermont needs to be ready. It is happening," Grad said. That panel's job will be to determine "what would be the best way," she said.

Opponents will be ready to state their case against legalization if need be, said Stephanie Winters, executive director of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Vermont chapter. That group, along with several allied medical groups, joined law enforcement including the Vermont Police Association and educators in arguing against legalization during the just-completed session.

"I think our members and myself will hope to be a part of the process," as lawmakers continue to study the issue, Winters said.

Two states that Vermont policymakers will be watching closely are neighboring Massachusetts and Maine, both of which are seen as likely to put ballot questions on legalization before voters in November. Supporters also are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative in California.

Vermont, unlike the four states and District of Columbia that have legalized pot — all by referendum — has no mechanism for putting changes in its statutes before voters. Lawmakers also rejected a call for a non-binding vote of residents — a proposal that, during its brief life last week, took on the moniker "reeferendum."

No legalization, no expanded decriminalization, no asking what the voters want — it all might be described as a bleak picture in Vermont for legalization supporters.

Matt Simon of the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project sought to accentuate the positive.

"We did not achieve our goal of ending marijuana prohibition this year, so one could call that a disappointment," he said. "At the same time, we feel like we made a lot of progress. One chamber of the Legislature did pass a bill. In the other chamber we had a productive conversation."

Simon also pointed to one outright win: A liberalization of Vermont's medical marijuana law, which until now has been among the more restrictive of those in states that have such laws.

Lawmakers approved adding patients with chronic pain to those eligible for the special card that enables them to get pot for symptom relief. Supporters of the change said that until now, it was easier for chronic pain sufferers to get prescription opioids than marijuana. The bill also shortened the time a patient needs to have been seeing a doctor from six months to three before getting approved for medical marijuana. It also added the eye disorder glaucoma as a qualifying condition.


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