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A Divided House Judiciary Committee Ponders the Pot Bill

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LUKE EASTMAN
  • luke eastman

On March 8, as Vermont lawmakers returned from their weeklong town meeting break, the House Judiciary Committee gathered to sort through pending bills.

"Rumor is, the Senate sent us a bill," joked Rep. Tom Burditt (R-West Rutland).

"It's here," responded committee chair Maxine Grad (D-Moretown).

It, of course, is the marijuana legalization bill, the hot-button issue that has so far hogged the 2016 legislative spotlight. Last month, the Senate passed a 95-page bill that would establish a system to permit, tax and regulate marijuana growing, testing and sales.

Now it's the House's turn to weigh in. First stop is the House Judiciary Committee, where seven Democrats and four Republicans have started studying what the Senate sent over.

Until now, the committee, a mix of newly elected and veteran members, has had other priorities: helping Vermonters whose driver's licenses have been suspended for noncriminal offenses; increasing use of ignition interlock devices; redefining "stalking" to make it easier for potential victims to get restraining orders.

This is the stuff that energizes Grad and the other 10 members of her committee. They relish wading into the depths of legal minutiae in hopes of making the state's laws function better.

Rep. Martin LaLonde (D-South Burlington), a lawyer who serves on the committee, said it's not "flashy, but it's important work."

Grad won't quite say she resents all the attention on marijuana legalization at the expense of her committee's other efforts, but she comes close. "At times I feel frustrated," she said recently. "Maybe my frustration is, people were asking us how we were going to vote, and the Senate hadn't even voted on it yet."

Now, though, the Senate has voted — 17 to 12 — to make it legal for adults over age 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and to buy up to half an ounce at state-permitted shops.

This week, Grad's committee started working through the proposed legislation, fully aware that its fate rests in their hands.

How is this pondering panel likely to proceed? Slowly and cautiously, if history is any indication.

The House Judiciary Committee's style is different from that of its smaller Senate counterpart, where considerable power resides with chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington). The longtime leader of the five-member Senate Judiciary Committee did much of the work crafting the bill behind the scenes under tight deadlines.

The House, too, is capable of making consequential moves in back rooms, but its judiciary committee is apt to sit around its U-shaped table until every last member has been heard. "The chair is very inclusive. That has led to a very collegial feeling in that committee," said Rep. Chip Conquest (D-Newbury).

Just to prepare themselves, members met behind closed doors last month with House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown).

The speaker had no firm instructions, according to Rep. Vicki Strong (R-Albany): "He very much said he trusts the committee's work on it. I thought that was a good thing."

"He basically said he was going to have us do our work and not pressure us," said Rep. Gary Viens (R-Newport).

Describing that meeting, Smith said, "My expectations were that they were to give it a fair hearing, and if they decide the bill wouldn't move forward," the committee should define the questions that remain, offering guidance for lawmakers in the future.

Smith wouldn't elaborate, but his comment suggests that if the House declines to embrace legalization this year, the fallback plan might be to create a study panel to prepare for something many are describing as inevitable.

But first, Grad said, the committee will take its own testimony on legalization. The topic is so big that Grad has started creating a diagram of the committee's steps. "She has this chart," said committee vice chair Willem Jewett (D-Ripton). "I've never seen her do that before."

Legislative lawyers were scheduled to explain the Senate bill to committee members this week. Grad said she doesn't want to spend any more than three weeks on the bill, which is how long it took to get through the Senate Judiciary.

That likely won't be enough time for Grad's group to reach a resolution. While the Senate committee started on the bill in January with a strong base of support for legalization, not a single member of the House committee has cited the issue as a priority. Roughly half are inclined to kill the bill.

And for legalization, it will have go through a long, drawn-out process to stand a chance. "We are very, very deliberative," said Conquest. "I think that's a great thing."

"It's a methodical ... group, for sure. They stand out as such," said Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), lead sponsor of marijuana legalization legislation in the House.

Pearson gives legalization "better than 50 percent odds" in the committee: "I am sensing more and more minds and people who seem genuinely interested in learning the facts."

Every legislative committee in the Statehouse has its own personality. Usually, it's an extension of the chair's style. House Judiciary is no exception.

Grad, 55, is a quiet, intense lawyer who started her legal career working in the Office of Legislative Council, the entity that works with lawmakers to write bills. She is a detail person who is comfortable writing legalese. As Grad said: "One word makes a difference."

A legislator since 2001, Grad served for many years on the House Judiciary Committee when Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg) was chair, and she picked up his painstaking approach. Last year, when Lippert became chair of the House Health Care Committee, Grad took the head seat on judiciary.

"I feel the product is better when everybody is involved," Grad said. "It may be more incremental, but over the long run, we reach our goals. That's my leadership style."

Grad's inclusiveness may mean the going is slow, but it earns her committee's devotion. "The whole committee just has respect for each other," said Rep. Marcia Martel (R-Waterford), a first-term member.

"I wasn't sure how I would be received," said Viens, another first-term member. "From day one, I felt like I was a full-fledged member. Every vote out of committee is 11-0."

Members say, however, that they are getting used to the idea that there won't be unanimity on marijuana. Several said that, as they looked around the room, they couldn't envision legalization passing this panel.

"I couldn't tell you anybody in there that is definitely for it," said Rep. Barbara Rachelson (D-Burlington), who described herself as open to the possibility.

Committee members' opinions run the gamut.

No one starts out more strongly opposed than Rep. Betty Nuovo (D-Middlebury), an 84-year-old lawyer otherwise known as a relatively liberal legislator. "There's no way I'm going to vote for this," she said. "The more people use it, the more trouble there is going to be."

On her desk was a dog-eared, yellow-highlighted copy of the Senate bill. "I've read the whole bill," she said, flipping to the section on how revenue from a 25 percent tax on marijuana would be divvied up. As she sees it, the state would encourage increased adoption of a drug by legalizing it, then use the proceeds to fund drug prevention, treatment and enforcement — what Nuovo views as an inherent contradiction.

Viens, a former police officer and border patrol agent, said he's opposed, but less adamantly than Nuovo. He said he knows people in the Northeast Kingdom who quietly grow their own marijuana. "I'm trying to very much keep an open mind," he said.

Martel, Strong and Burditt said they don't envision voting for legalization. Burditt said he personally leans libertarian, but his West Rutland constituents are generally in opposition.

Other committee members revealed varying degrees of support.

"I'm still unclear how I would vote," Conquest said.

Rep. Bill Frank (D-Underhill) said he didn't know for sure how he'd vote, but that his gut feeling is, "We're not ready for it."

LaLonde put his stance this way: "I don't have a moral opposition to it, but I have concerns."

Rachelson and Jewett both said they are open to the notion that prohibition of marijuana isn't working well. "It's here," Jewett said. "Do we want to bring it out of the shadows or not?"

And what about Grad, their deliberative leader? "I think this is an important issue," she said, poker-faced. Observers see her as a swing vote.

She cautions, though, that legalization is not as simple as many people think. When a poll indicates 55 percent of Vermonters favor legalization, people are answering a simple yes or no question, she noted, adding, "It's not that black and white."

The committee has to decide not just whether marijuana should be legal, but who can grow, buy and sell it, and how much, where it can be consumed, and how the state can monitor it. "It's a major policy shift," Grad said.

That's just the kind of legal gray area where her committee is accustomed to spending its energy. But can it find agreement this time?

Said Grad: "I don't know."


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