Sears, Shumlin Frame a Draft Marijuana Legalization Bill | Off Message

Sears, Shumlin Frame a Draft Marijuana Legalization Bill


Gov. Peter Shumlin, Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and Sen. Dick Sears - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • Gov. Peter Shumlin, Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and Sen. Dick Sears
Gov. Peter Shumlin and Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) united Tuesday behind a plan to allow the sale of marijuana at  20 to 40 stores around Vermont — but not until 2018.

Shumlin and Sears, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, stood side-by-side at an afternoon press conference to champion a plan that is more restrictive than what some legalization advocates want. The two say a bill that Sears crafted over the weekend with Shumlin's help would create a system that is safer and more sensible than the current illegal market.

“Listen, the black market is failing,” Shumlin said. “Dealers don’t care how old you are when they sell you their wares.”

“If we can do a tightly regulated, from-seed-to-sale-system … I think that is far superior to the black market,” Sears said.

Sears earlier in the day unveiled the 53-page draft bill that his committee will work on for the rest of this week. It would allow for the legal sale of up to an ounce to Vermonters over age 21, and a quarter of an ounce for adults from out of state. The market initially would be served by 10 to 20 licensed marijuana cultivators, who would have to be Vermont residents. 

Sears' committee is expected to vote on a bill with revisions Friday. 

Even with Shumlin and Sears joining forces on a plan, it remains unclear whether legalization will pass the legislature in 2016. Key lawmakers in the House are less enthusiastic about passage.

Sears said the 2018 date for retail marijuana stores to open is not cast in stone, but he is firm that he will not support legalizing homegrown marijuana initially. That stance has generated some backlash, including from a woman who left Sears a message Tuesday saying she would mobilize opposition to the bill as a result.

Legalization advocates who are monitoring the bill in the Statehouse are more amenable to supporting a phased-in approach. 

"It's a cautious step forward," said Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden), who authored an earlier marijuana-legalization bill that would have allowed homegrown pot. "I hope progress will be made in the next few years to add home grow and small-scale production."

Shumlin and Sears aren't in lock-step on every aspect, including home-growing. The governor acknowledged Sears’ worries that home-growing operations are difficult to police, but said he remains open to legalizing small amounts of marijuana grown in outdoor home gardens.

Sears’ bill does not allow for lounges where adults could consume marijuana, which authors of earlier versions of the bill had sought. The bill would establish a commission to study whether to eventually legalize lounges, home-growing and the sale of edible products.

The plan Sears outlined (Read the summary below) would allow Vermont municipalities to hold public votes to prohibit marijuana stores within their borders. It would allow only those who have lived in Vermont for at least two years to obtain a state permit to sell marijuana. A host of rules would govern how those permits are granted, similar to rules governing medical marijuana dispensaries.

The bill calls for training 10 more drug-recognition experts among Vermont police agencies, and adding 25 troopers gradually over the next three years. Sears’ bill calls for spending $1.5 million for the first nine troopers next year. Shumlin indicated at the press conference he didn’t realize that.

Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, who stood with Sears and Shumlin, said he is not offering an opinion on whether legalization is the right direction, though he acknowledged most of the troopers who work for him likely oppose legalization. “I work for the guy behind me here,” he said, referring to Shumlin.

Sears’ bill would allow 25 percent of marijuana revenue to be used for any general fund purpose. That stands in contrast to what Shumlin has said — that all the money must go to drug treatment, police and administration of the law.

Shumlin said he won’t fight that fight yet. “I recognize this is a draft,” Shumlin said.

Sears’ bill would enhance penalties for those over age 21 who supply marijuana or alcohol to those under 18, making it a felony punishable by up to four years imprisonment.