Leaders are cloistered under the ornate, marble dome. Everyone outside is anxiously awaiting the puff of white smoke that will signal consensus.
No, not the election of a new pope in Vatican City — the pot bill in the Vermont Statehouse!
A bill to decriminalize possession of “small” amounts of marijuana — two ounces or less — is one of the most hotly anticipated of the year. That’s because after a messy showdown in Senate last year, the bill’s main obstacle — House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville) — agreed that he would allow the legislation to proceed in his chamber this year.
But with two weeks to go until the mid-session “crossover” deadline — the lawmaker equivalent of an all-star break — the bill hasn’t made an appearance. There's been no sign of it in committee and no word about a hearing. You’d have better luck finding a bag of Cheetos in a UVM dorm room at 4:20.
Well, stoners, take heart. Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) let slip to Seven Days that House and Senate leaders have made a deal to grant the decrim bill an extension, allowing it to survive the mid-March crossover deadline. “If they were to pass a bill and it came over two weeks after crossover deadline, we’d still consider it,” Sears said this week.
Vermont and New Hampshire are the only New England states that haven’t passed laws making small-quantity pot possession a civil offense — like a traffic ticket — rather than a criminal one. Supporters argue that prosecuting low-level pot possession wastes the criminal justice system’s resources and saddles offenders with records that can prohibit them from securing student loans, among other things.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the idea of decriminalizing pot is a bong hit — excuse me, big hit — among Vermont lawmakers. The House bill has 39 cosponsors and would not just decriminalize pot but also pot plants — two mature plants, or seven immature ones — for people 21 and older. A Senate version has nine cosponsors, but puts the threshold for noncriminal pot possession at one ounce rather than two.
Uh, memo to lawmakers: That's still a bundle of kind bud!
Lippert said the decrim bill has taken a backseat this year to a more urgent drug problem lawmakers are addressing: prescription opiate abuse. A bill dealing with the latter will be voted out of the House Judiciary and Human Services committees before the crossover deadline and come before the full House not long after that, Lippert said.
Lippert said his committee has had other important items on its plate, too, this session: an equal-pay bill and a pension-forfeiture bill for corrupt public officials. Also, Lippert said the session began a week later than normal this year, though the crossover deadline did not move as a result, giving lawmakers less time to get stuff done.
Acknowledging that some lawmakers on his committee oppose lessening pot penalties, Lippert said he believes the bill will pass.
"Speaking for myself, I would support some kind of decriminalization bill that has some marker of a small amount of possession for personal use," Lippert said, adding he would oppose decriminalizing large amounts that suggest someone is dealing the drug.
Lippert said the political landscape around pot has changed since Washington State and Colorado voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana last fall, and he suggests it's only a matter of time until Vermont grapples with a legalization bill. But for now, Lippert said he opposes legalization.
"My own position may change on that," Lippert said. "But right now I'm hesitant to turn over another drug that can be promoted and exploited by forces which have no interest other than to promote and make money off of a recreational drug."
Lippert said House Judiciary will take up the decrim bill after the legislature's town meeting break and will probably take several days of testimony over the course of several weeks.