Windham senator urges thorough marijuana debate

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BRATTLEBORO >> Last August, during a campaign debate in Brattleboro, Sen. Jeannette White was the lone candidate to fully endorse legalizing marijuana.

"The war on drugs has not worked," White said at the time. "We are creating a black market for it that only increases the criminal aspects of the use of marijuana."

Now, it appears that Vermont is taking substantial steps toward legalization, and White's Government Operations Committee is taking testimony on the matter. But she is advocating a methodical approach.

"Our feeling is that, at some point, it will be inevitable that it will be legalized," said White, D-Putney. "We want to make sure that, when that happens, we have answered all the questions and will be in a position to do it the Vermont way by being proactive rather than letting it happen to us."

Marijuana legalization has become a hit topic in the 2015 legislative session. Lawmakers in January received a RAND Corp. study examining the potential effects of legalizing the drug in Vermont. And a group of officials including state Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn traveled to Colorado earlier this month to study the effects of legalization there.

On Wednesday, Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, introduced a 44-page marijuana-regulation bill. But White said much work remains.

"What my committee is doing is looking at the RAND report and trying to figure out the way it should happen in Vermont — if and when," White said. "We have looked at the current status of the laws and also looked at the issues surrounding hemp."

She added that lawmakers are debating the shape and scope of marijuana regulation in Vermont: "Who should buy, who should grow, who should sell, where should it be sold, in what form should it be sold, regulations on different types of growers, types of products, how to keep out of the hands of minors, education, etc."

In other news from local lawmakers:

— Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, has sponsored a bill (H.171) that would regulate electronic cigarettes, an increasingly popular alternative to tobacco use.

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"H.171 requires that e-cigarettes not be used anywhere that tobacco use is banned," Mrowicki said. "While we understand that many users of e-cigarettes believe them to be helpful, the fact is the chemicals in them are known to be toxic and carcinogenic. Whether they emit smoke or not, the vapors are exhaled into common air. We feel this is a public health concern, and that people who do not 'vape' should not be forced to breathe in vapors containing toxics."

Mrowicki said the bill also mandates that e-cigarettes in stores be placed "out of the reach of children, who are attracted by their fruit and bubble-gum flavors."

— Having previously heard testimony about high costs and high interest rates at rent-to-own centers, Windham County Sen. Becca Balint was happy to see Gov. Peter Shumlin back regulation of that industry at a Thursday press conference. Legislation is in the works, said Balint, D-Brattleboro.

"Those of us on the Economic Development Committee are advocates for a strong, vibrant economy in Vermont, and we are also committed to guaranteeing consumer protections," Balint said. "As we have growing rates of poverty here in Windham County, I am pleased to see that we have the political will to protect our more vulnerable citizens from opaque and unfair rental agreements that can result in consumers paying exorbitant prices for rent-to-own products that often are not even new."

— As a member of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, has been hard at work on a complex energy-policy change regarding the state's Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development program, also known as SPEED.

"SPEED required that utilities sign long-term contracts for renewable power, which provided incentives for renewable energy project development," Hebert said.

However, there was a hitch: "Unlike our neighboring New England states and a majority of states across the country, Vermont does not require the ownership and retirement of Renewable Energy Credits or Certificates (RECs) in the SPEED program," Hebert said. "This has caused our neighbors to call into question the legitimacy of Vermont's SPEED program. Our neighboring states were no longer going to allow the purchase of Vermont utilities' RECs within their states. This would result in a $50 million electrical-rate increase, placing more burdens on every Vermonter and threatening the viability of our businesses and the jobs they provide."

To address the issue, Hebert said he "worked cooperatively with not only the members of my committee but with the utility companies, private businesses, power generators and the public to address the concerns for the original bill. These efforts resulted in the creation of an Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) for Vermont, which would transition us from SPEED to a program that would put us in alignment with other states in our region."

The RPS bill was approved by Hebert's committee last week.

Contact Mike Faher at 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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