Cannabis bills get mixed response

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Friday, February 8
BRATTLEBORO -- It was a mixed day for the cannabis plant in Montpelier Thursday.

The Vermont House of Representatives came one step closer to passing a bill that would legalize the cultivation of industrial hemp, though the state law would have no practical effect unless a federal ban is repealed.

The Senate Judiciary committee, meanwhile, voted 4-1 in favor of a bill that would decrease some penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana -- though the committee sawed most of the teeth off the original, wide-ranging decriminalization bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham.

"To be honest with you, I'm glad we started the conversation. I would rather it go farther than it does, but I know there are some issues that came up that were problematic and would have some unanticipated consequences," White said of the decriminalization bill. "Two months ago people would have thrown up their hands and said I was a crazy nut!"

White's original bill would have made the sale or possession of four ounces of marijuana or less a civil penalty with a fine, rather than a criminal offense. The amended version, however, simply removes the potential of jail time for those in possession of one ounce or less. If caught, a person with that amount could either submit to a diversion program or be charged a $500 fine for the first offense and a $750 fine for the second.

"The committee rejects the idea of decriminalizing the sale of any amount of any drug," said committee chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington. "If somebody sells something, that's going to be a criminal offense as long as I'm around. But I think we need to have a debate about our drug laws and whether they're working."

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Sears said the committee decided, in the end, to enact as law what is already common practice in many parts of Vermont.

"We are trying to do what is the general practice of most state's attorneys in the state, which is to offer diversion to people in possession of small amounts," he said.

White said she was disappointed with the changes, but was glad the Legislature had begun to grapple with the issue.

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"I won't ever get my own way on anything totally, but that's what it's all about: trying to get 180 opinions together and make some headway," she said.

An unrelated bill that would legalize the cultivation of hemp had more success Thursday. In its second reading on the House floor, it passed with bipartisan support on 127-9 vote. The bill will likely be passed today and then move on to the Senate.

"I think it's a good step in the right direction," said Rep. Daryl Pillsbury, I-Brattleboro, a cosponsor of the bill.

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Proponents of legalizing hemp say the plant, which is a cousin of that which produces marijuana, has just trace amounts of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. They argue that hemp is a tremendously versatile and valuable crop that can be used for food, clothing and even building.

"The first potential is seed and food product. I'm very excited for the prospect of building materials," said Ian Kiehle, store manager for Brattleboro's Save the Corporations, which sells hemp products. "Imagine if we could have, literally, a home-grown green industry in Vermont. That is possible."

For the moment, however, the move is largely symbolic, as the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's ban on its cultivation would supersede a new state law.

Nevertheless, the bill's advocates see it as a victory.

"This place has worked on this issue for a while," said Rep. David Deen, another cosponsor. "I believe most legislators are convinced you can't get high from industrial hemp, and it is a wonderful, alternate crop for Vermont farmers."

Paul Heintz can be reached at or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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