Vermont Senate Passes Marijuana Legalization Bill, Which Now Heads To Gov. Scott

Jan 10, 2018
Originally published on January 10, 2018 6:32 pm

The Vermont Senate has given its approval to legislation legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. On a voice vote, the Senate backed a bill Wednesday that allows individuals to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow two mature plants.

The Vermont House passed the measure last week. Because the legislation is a House bill, it will go back to that chamber on Thursday afternoon before being sent to the governor for his review.

Although Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a marijuana legalization bill last year, in a recent interview, he said he will sign this legislation.

"I made that commitment," said Scott. "It's a libertarian approach and that was something that I was comfortable doing."

When he does sign, Vermont will become the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislative process. The eight states which have also legalized it have done so by citizen referendum.

If Scott signs the bill into law, it would take effect on July 1, 2018.

There was virtually no debate at Wednesday's Senate vote — only three senators stood up to make any comments about the bill, and they were all supporters. The vote was taken by voice and not a roll call, where each senator goes on the record with their vote.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears said he wasn't all that surprised by the lack of debate over the bill because the Senate has been dealing with this issue for several years.

"I think the Senate at this point recognizes this is an agreement with the governor and we passed virtually the same bill last spring," said Sears. 

And Sears doesn't think the legislation will lead to a significant increase of marijuana use in Vermont.

“If the Rand Corporation is anywhere near correct, 80,000 Vermonters are using it now and maybe a few people who will try it and either not like it or continue to use it, but I don't think it's gonna result in a huge influx,” said Sears.

Laura Subin is the director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana — a pro-legalization group, and she says the bill provides important criminal justice reforms because certain groups have been targeted by law enforcement.

"The harms that have been done in the name of marijuana prohibition to poor people and to communities of color are just egregious," Subin said. "And today the Legislature has stood up and said, 'No more — we don't want this to be happening in Vermont anymore.'"

While it allows for some personal possession, this bill does not create a tax-and-regulate system for the sale of marijuana. A special gubernatorial commission is studying this broader approach and will issue its report at the end of the year.

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a strong supporter of the legalization of marijuana, hopes lawmakers will eventually implement a state regulatory system where marijuana is sold in retail stores and is taxed.

"The legislative system is catching up with the public," said Zuckerman. "And people are getting over the hurdle of this is an absolute evil that doesn't exist and somehow by supporting this we're bringing it into existence, and more a recognition of the reality that's already out there in Vermont and that we now have to move forward with a complete conversation."

But Scott is also making it clear that he will not support the tax-and-regulate approach until a reliable roadside test has been developed to measure driver impairment for a variety of drugs.

"It's not just impairment due to alcohol or not just to marijuana, but it's prescription drugs and heroin and a combination of all, and we have to come up with a way to determine impairment on our highways," said Scott.

Update 6:15 p.m. This post was updated to include more details about the vote and the comments from Scott, Zuckerman, Sears and Subin.

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