Sens. (from left) Michael Sirotkin, Alice Nitka, Dick Sears and Jane Kitchel discuss a marijuana legalization amendment during a break from the Senate debate Thursday.
The Vermont Senate altered a marijuana legalization bill Thursday to make room for more small growers, a move that swayed one senator to change her vote.
The Senate voted 17-12 to move the bill to the House. Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham), who voted against the measure a day earlier, changed her mind after senators expanded options for small growers.
“I still have concerns,” Balint said. “I do think it’s a better bill.”
The bill, which sets up a system of taxing and regulating marijuana, would allow those 21 years of age or older to possess up to an ounce starting in 2018. Permits would be issued for up to 30 marijuana stores where Vermonters could buy up to a half-ounce at a time and out-of-staters a quarter-ounce.
In two days of debate on the issue, senators who oppose the bill never quite went to the mat to fight passage, an indication that they aren’t convinced marijuana legalization is going to make it through the full legislature this year.
In the House, where the bill’s prospects are uncertain, the Judiciary Committee will likely start work on it in three or four weeks, said House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown).
But Smith noted that the Senate's 17-12 vote, preceded a day earlier by a 16-13 vote, did not send a strong message of support for legalization. "The bill has not come over with a ton of momentum," Smith said. "I think that if you had seen a bill that came over with 20 votes or more that would have been a different signal."
Smith said he agrees with the premise that supporters of the bill are advocating. “I believe that the current policy that we have in place is broken,” Smith said. “Whether we can fix it this year I think is an open question, but I do think it’s an issue worth addressing.”
As an indication House members are gearing up for debate, Essex legislators plan a forum from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday at Essex High School, said Rep. Tim Jerman (D-Essex Junction). The moderated forum will feature pro and con legalization presentations followed by discussion, he said.
“My community really needs to talk about this,” Jerman said, declining to offer his own views.
Senators voted Thursday to amend the bill, adding lower-priced permits for smaller marijuana growing facilities of up to 1,000 square feet. The move was an attempt to respond to concerns that the bill would allow only wealthy corporations to get involved.
Under the revision, permits would be issued for up to 54 growing facilities and 30 retail stores in the first two years. An application to operate the smallest facilities would cost $3,000, with prices gradually increasing to $30,000 for the largest facilities of 5,001-10,000 square feet.
Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington), chief architect of the bill, went along with the change.
“It isn’t that we wanted to keep this for big weed. We wanted to make sure they were large enough to be profitable and that they could provide product at a price that can block the black market,” Sears said.