It was a bit of a buzz kill when Vermont's House Judiciary Committee missed a key deadline last week on a bill that would legalize small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.
Fortunately, H.170 was granted an extension, approved by the committee on Wednesday, and now heads to the House floor for a vote.
The legislation would remove all civil and criminal penalties for adult possession of up to an ounce of pot. It also would allow Vermonters to have up to two mature marijuana plants and four immature plants. Under current law, possession of up to an ounce is punishable by a civil fine.
Some say the proposed bill doesn't go far enough because it does not create a regulated market involving legal sales and taxation. Rep. Janssen Willhoit, R-St. Johnsbury, raised concerns that without a regulated system, Vermonters would have to either grow it themselves or go to the black market.
Perhaps that's true for northern Vermonters, but here in Windham County all they would have to do is drive a few miles down the road into Massachusetts, where marijuana was legalized last year. It won't be long before retailers start selling it just across our border. The concern here is over the loss of all that potential business and tax dollars to our southern neighbors. Our retailers already feel the pain of our proximity to tax-free New Hampshire to the east.
That's not to say that marijuana should be legalized solely for business and tax purposes, of course. We have argued extensively on this page that legalization is long over due from a criminal justice standpoint. Studies have long debunked the myth that marijuana is in league with or a gateway to more serious drugs like heroin, which has become the real scourge on our communities. It would be better to use our limited law enforcement resources and prison space on the hardcore heroin dealers.
An effort to create a fully regulated marijuana market in Vermont failed in the last legislative session because many preferred a go-slow approach to see how legalization is fairing in other states. And, with a new president in the White House there's still the uncertainly over the future of the federal government's stance on marijuana legalization.
As Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chair of the committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, told VTDigger, the more limited proposal is less likely to be in "jeopardy" should the federal government shift from the Obama-era approach of largely leaving it up to states.
"I also do know that just this one incremental step is much safer because it is within our state's prerogative of defining criminal penalties, different from a tax and regulated system," Grad said.
But as more and more states get on board with legalization, including sales and taxation, these arguments will fade away. In fact, the idea of setting up a regulated market in Vermont may still be on the table.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a key supporter of last year's effort, indicated that proposal might be under consideration again should H.170 pass the House and make it to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.
"I've heard a lot of folks who are very interested in seeing a regulated system in the House, and it's no secret that we in the Senate would prefer a regulated system," Sears told VTDigger.
As Sears pointed out, however, the go-slow approach is better than doing nothing: "As long as we create a path toward a regulated system that could coincide with Massachusetts' implementation and Maine's implementation, I think we'd be in good shape."
Provided, of course, that the bill survives a potential veto. Gov. Phil Scott has said he is not opposed to legalization but would like to see a roadside test similar to those used to test for alcohol impairment. That's a legitimate concern, but it is a problem that - because of our proximity to Massachusetts — would exist regardless of what law Vermont passes.