Possession, edibles top legalization debate

MONTPELIER — Possession limits and edibles topped a discussion Thursday on how the state might go about marijuana legalization.

The Senate Government Operations Committee spent most of the day mulling how, not if, pot would be legalized during the upcoming legislative session, with an eye toward everything from the way Vermonters would be allowed to cultivate to the items that would be available at shops selling pot products.

The Senate Government Operations Committee discusses marijuana legalization.

Josh O'Gorman / Vermont Press Bureau

The Senate Government Operations Committee discusses marijuana legalization. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

Numerous bills related to legalization are pending, including one from Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden – who is running for lieutenant governor – calling for legalization, to another from Rep. David Potter, D-West Rutland, whose bill calls for a saliva test to determine if a motorist is driving while stoned.

All of these bills are set against the backdrop of a state-commissioned study from the Rand Corporation released in January stating the taxation of marijuana could generate as much as $70 million in revenue, an attractive proposition for some lawmakers as the state is looking at a projected $66 million deficit.

In some ways, the committee’s take on marijuana mirrors existing laws governing alcohol. Possession and use would be restricted to individuals 21 years old and older; providing marijuana to individuals younger than 21 would be a crime akin to furnishing alcohol to a minor.

And like alcohol, young people caught possessing or using marijuana would be referred to a court diversion program.

The committee spent some time Thursday discussing possession limits, with the initial plan allowing a Vermont resident to possess as much as 1 ounce and have as many as six plants; nonresidents would be allow to possess no more more than a quarter of an ounce.

The difference between residential and nonresidential possession limits can be found in Colorado and Washington, which have both recently legalized marijuana, and is reflection of the guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Justice – which still considers the plant to be illegal – that caution states to take steps to prevent diversion of marijuana to surrounding states where it is not legal.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, expressed concern the nonresident limit is a step backward from the law enacted in 2013 that decriminalized possession for any amount less than 1 ounce, for residents and nonresidents alike.

Sen Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, studies marijuana legalization

Josh O'Gorman / Vermont Press Bureau

Sen Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, studies marijuana legalization. (VPB/Josh O’Gorman)

“I don’t want to put someone who is a college student in a different position simply because they have a license from another state,” who suggested instead limiting the amount a nonresident could purchase, while acknowledging such a policy would require retail establishments to communicate with each other.

The committee also discussed cultivation, with Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, asking if landlords could prohibit tenants from growing marijuana.

“If it can be excluded by landlords, you are excluding a lot of people from being able to grow,” Bray said.

Sen Jeanette White, D-Windham, who chairs the committee, noted landlords are able to prohibit all manner of activity that is otherwise legal.

“Dogs are legal, and landlords can prohibit dogs,” White said.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham

White also took up the issue of edible marijuana products, noting news stories out of Colorado and Washington of individuals consuming too much and having a bad time.

“That’s where are all the pushback is coming from,” White said, who suggested retail establishments be prohibited from selling edibles, at least at first, and restricting their sale to medical marijuana dispensaries. “If you put it into your body, it’s going to come from the dispensaries.”

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P-Washington, said focusing on edibles could derail efforts to pass a legalization bill during the upcoming session.

“If we start talking about edibles and packaging, I don’t think we can expect to pass a bill this year.” Pollina said.

josh.ogorman@timesargus.com

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