Notes from the Senate: Marijuana legalization is inevitable

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The legalization and regulation of marijuana (cannabis) is inevitable. It is happening in states all around us, there is some movement at the federal level, and public opinion on the issue is changing. So if it going to happen what can we as a state do to make sure that we are in the drivers seat. (Just heard an NPR program on driverless cars but in this case we do want to make sure there is a driver).

During the last legislative session, the Senate Government Operations Committee held hearings every Friday afternoon on "Legalization the Vermont Way." We have learned some lessons from states who didn't think through the issue carefully before making the leap (they had a driverless car before all the details were worked out) and we do not want to make those same mistakes. We heard from law enforcement, the prevention community, advocates, folks who visited Colorado, the authors of the Rand Study, and anyone else who wanted to weigh in.

From all this testimony we created a framework as a place to start. Our intention is to listen to reactions to that framework, create a bill this fall, and introduce it in January. You can see the framework on the Vermont legislative website, Senate Government Operations page, under "documents."

Very briefly we are recommending that for youth under 21 it be treated the same way as alcohol — and for those who supply it to those under 21. We would allow personal cultivation and use but as soon as money changes hands a permit would be required. We are suggesting different types of permits: cultivator, wholesaler (someone who simply transports it from cultivator to retailer), retailer, testing/research, and production (transforming the raw product into a different form, e.g. creams, tinctures, etc).

In an attempt to keep it local and small, we are suggesting that a permit holder must be a Vermonter, that a single entity cannot hold more than two permits (any combination but no more than two), and that there be a size limit to a cultivation facility.

Although it is not part of the framework we will suggest that the permit fees and taxes be kept low enough that it will always be cheaper to buy legally than from the underground market. We will suggest that of the money collected by the state a large portion go to education and prevention for those under 21. We have not yet decided on penalties but are looking at non-criminal penalties for violations except for large scale illegal traffickers and sale to minors.

A separate group has formed to look at the economic/job growth benefits to legalization. It is called the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative. They are focused on product development, job growth and other economic benefits. We are already seeing this on a national scale as companies are lining up to share in this new industry.

So our goal is to legalize, regulate, keep it small, and make it a choice by informed adults. We want to hear from everyone. Monday, July 27, starting at 5 p.m. at the River Garden in Brattleboro is your chance to hear what others think and to give your own ideas. Members of the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative will also be on hand. See you there.

Jeanette White is one of two senators who represents Windham County in the Vermont Legislature. She lives in Putney and can be contacted at JWhite@leg.state.vt.us.

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