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Vermont Legislature Poised to Approve Legal Weed in 2018

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LUKE EASTMAN
  • Luke Eastman

Bettors could prudently put their money on this prediction: Effective July 1, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will be legal for adults in Vermont. After two years of dramatic legislative twists and turns over whether to make marijuana legal, all indications are that this proposal is headed for passage in 2018.

When legislators wrapped up their session in June, the last bit of unfinished business on their agenda was H.511, a bill that would legalize adult possession of marijuana starting in July 2018.

That bill will still be on the House calendar when legislators return to Montpelier in January, an immediate reminder that the long-debated issue has not gone away.

Passage isn't certain, of course. Opponents will continue to press their case that legal weed will harm young people and increase the number of stoned drivers.

The House — long reluctant to embrace legalization — could send the bill back to committee to mull its options.

Gov. Phil Scott, who vetoed legalization legislation in May, could find a reason to yank his support of this revised version as he awaits recommendations from a commission he appointed to study the topic.

Or a Senate that is eager for full taxed-and-regulated possession and sale of marijuana could decide to push for that in 2018, jeopardizing Scott's support in the process.

But it very much looks like both chambers of the legislature and the governor are ready to stick to this year's tenuous agreement to legalize possession of up to an ounce of pot, as well as cultivation of two mature and four immature plants.

"The House will act on something this [coming] year — I suspect quickly," said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero).

Her statement is revealing. House members stymied Senate efforts to legalize marijuana before coalescing around the possession-only bill late in this year's legislative session. But Johnson, who has long been lukewarm at best to legalization, offered no hint of hesitation about the future in an interview last month.

"The majority of the House is ready," she said.

Scott told Seven Days that if lawmakers adhere to a compromise reached in June, he fully intends to sign the bill next year. Based on Scott's concerns, lawmakers agreed to stiffen penalties for providing marijuana to youths and for driving with kids in the car while high on marijuana.

Scott pledged that he has no plans to renege on promises to sign such a bill. "It depends on the details, but I said before I would sign something of that nature," he said.

And the Senate — in which a majority of members would prefer to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana sales — appears willing to settle for legalizing possession in 2018 as a starting point.

"Hopefully, within a year, we would have a tax-and-regulate system," said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Despite those assurances from key leaders, opponents are not ready to concede defeat.

"I don't see it as inevitable," said Kevin Ellis, a Statehouse lobbyist who represents a coalition of opponents called Smart Approaches to Marijuana Vermont. "Someone is going to have to say, 'This is how much we're going to spend on education and prevention,' and that money has to come from somewhere ... I don't know where they're going to get the money."

Ellis said opponents, including health professionals and school counselors, will continue to argue that legalization will encourage more young people to consume marijuana, which poses scientifically identified risks to the development of their brains.

SAM-VT won't be alone in its opposition, as Vermont police agencies and municipal leaders are poised to voice worries about public safety. The Vermont League of Cities & Towns has agreed on a policy position for next year's debate that says, "Marijuana should be legalized for recreational purposes only after public safety, public health, and local regulatory and budgetary concerns are adequately addressed."

There's little doubt, though, that the debate has tilted in favor of legalization.

"It's more socially acceptable to say you're for this," said Eli Harrington, cofounder of Heady Vermont, a legalization advocacy organization. "The tenor of the conversation has become more open."

After years of debating medical marijuana, decriminalization and various forms of legalization, more legislators have grown comfortable discussing legal use of pot. In addition, voter initiatives in other states have normalized legalization.

Voters in eight states, starting with Colorado in 2012, have legalized possession and sale of marijuana. Last year, voters in Massachusetts and Maine brought legalization to Vermont's doorstep. Possession is lawful in both of these neighboring states, which are expected to authorize the opening of pot shops in July.

Rep. Maxine Grad (D-Moretown), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said she talked with legislators from some of those states at a legislative conference over the summer. Learning about the rules they have adopted to implement legalization has made her more confident about Vermont tackling the same issues, she said.

Grad noted that, in Maine, lawmakers rejected an effort to set a numeric legal limit for driving under the influence of marijuana, deeming the level untrustworthy. Instead, the legislature increased funding for police drug-recognition training. She said she might advocate for doing the same in Vermont.

Just a year ago, Grad was unwilling to go along with legal possession. Her turnaround mirrors those of House colleagues who have steadily grown more used to the idea.

If Vermont's elected leaders legalize possession of marijuana next year, the state would be the first to do so through legislation rather than voter referendum.

When voters in states with referendums are asked about legalization, they answer a simple yes-or-no question, leaving the details of how it will be enacted up to state officials. Vermont lawmakers have had to struggle through those details themselves, running into disagreements that pitted supporters against one another.

Advocates of legalizing homegrown marijuana butted heads in recent years with those who pushed for allowing larger-volume retail sales. Those camps still have conflicting interests, Harrington said, but they are starting to work together.

Vermont's march toward legalization has involved many small steps: the approval of marijuana for medical purposes in 2004, the addition of medical marijuana dispensaries in 2011 and the decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2013.

Legalization bills were introduced many times over the years only to languish. In 2016, the Senate voted to legalize and tax sales, but the House refused to pass the bill.

Advocates faced further frustration that year: Democratic governor Peter Shumlin, a supporter who pledged to sign the legislation, retired; Scott, his Republican successor, said the time was not right for legalization.

During the 2017 session, the House and Senate finally passed a compromise, voting to legalize personal possession and cultivation. Scott vetoed the bill, contending that it didn't do enough to address youth drug-abuse prevention and roadway safety issues.

Leading up to a one-day veto session in June, Scott agreed to a revised version. But the governor didn't seek the support of his fellow Republicans in the House, which declined to allow a vote.

That bill will be up for action January 4, the second day of the next legislation session. Johnson and Grad said they have yet to decide whether the House will vote immediately or send the bill to committee for slight changes. But both agree that action on that bill or another like it will be taken early in the four-month session.

Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden), who worked on decriminalization legislation before setting his sights on legalization, said the long debate has been healthy. "It's been heartening to see the sniggering stop and people actually debating it for the issue that it is," Pearson said. "It doesn't bother me that it took time to unfold."

David Mickenberg, a Statehouse lobbyist who represents the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, said that, each year, a greater number of lawmakers has concurred that prohibition of marijuana isn't working. That has changed the tone of the debate, he said.

"What that means is, people will be talking about marijuana in the context of it being in Vermont already and how can we talk about better protecting health and better protecting kids," Mickenberg said.

While all eyes are focused on passage of legal possession in 2018, advocates have made clear that they will push for more changes to follow, including taxed retail sales. Harrington said he plans to lobby next year for Vermont to establish cultivator licenses to allow state residents to legally grow marijuana for sale.

But Harrington said those efforts would come only after passage of legal possession. Pressing the issue sooner, he said, could delay that first step or give Scott an excuse to again veto legalization.

Scott, meanwhile, is hoping to delay adoption of taxed-and-regulated cultivation and sale until after his commission concludes its work. The panel is scheduled to make preliminary recommendations by November 15, 2017, but will not issue a final report until December 2018. Legalization supporters are wary that Scott will use the commission's findings to scuttle full legalization.

Sears said he is angling toward setting a firm 2019 deadline for full legalization. "I would like to see a commission established to actually implement tax-and-regulate by a certain date," he said.

But the 74-year-old lawmaker takes nothing for granted. Anticipating what his House counterparts will do with marijuana legislation has proven difficult in the past few years, he noted. "We continually hear, 'We don't have the votes,' or, 'Somebody's out sick,'" he said. "It's been very frustrating."


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