Senate bill to legalize marijuana is unveiled

MONTPELIER — Legislation to be introduced next month when lawmakers return to the State House would allow those 21 and over to grow and possess marijuana as early as July 2016.

The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Jeanette White, D-Windham, and Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, would allow for the retail sale of pot and permitted lounges, in 2017. White crafted the bill following a series of hearings by the Senate Government Operations Committee this fall. The committee could not reach consensus on a bill, she said.

The Senate Democratic caucus met at the home of Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell Saturday to discuss several topics, including the potential legalization of marijuana in Vermont. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

The Senate Democratic caucus met at the home of Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell Saturday to discuss several topics, including the potential legalization of marijuana in Vermont. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

The 41-page bill does not address questions about taxes and fees. That, according to White, will be addressed by the Senate Finance Committee. The bill’s first stop once introduced will be the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“There are other committees that, certainly, it touches, and it’s going to be up to those committees whether they want to take it in and discuss it,” Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, said.

Personal cultivation and use would allow residents to grow marijuana in plots of up to 100 square feet. Marijuana possession would be limited to 1 ounce. Anything harvested over that amount would be required to be secured in some manner. The private sale of marijuana between two parties would not be allowed, and marijuana could not be exchanged for anything of value outside a permitted retail establishment.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham

“We did not address gifting because I think that is a huge issue to go into,” White told her Democratic Senate colleagues at a caucus meeting Saturday. “If you make your own beer we don’t say whether you can give it to somebody or not. We’re silent on that.”

The legislation includes five different permits, all of which require Vermont residency, related to the retail sale of marijuana. Edibles would not be allowed under the bill.

A cultivator could have a maximum plot size of 40,000 square feet to supply retail outlets. A permitted retailer could sell up to 1 ounce of marijuana to a Vermont resident and up to a quarter-ounce to a non-resident. A transporter would be allowed to transport marijuana between a cultivator and retailer.

Additional permits would allowed a product manufacturer to produce cannabis-infused products for topical application. A lounge would be allowed to sell up to a quarter-ounce of marijuana for consumption on the premises.

Under the legislation, a maximum of 86 retail outlets could be permitted, which would average six per county. A total of 42 lounges could be permitted, allowing for an average of three per county. Lounges were added to the bill because smoking in public or in hotels is not allowed, potentially driving tourists who travel to the state to take to smoking in their vehicles, White said.

The legal retail sale and personal use of marijuana would be overseen by a Cannabis Control Board within the Department of Public Safety. The board would have authority similar to the state’s Liquor Control Board. Retailers would be required to display information approved by the board on the dangers of marijuana use.

The legislation would keep in place penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana and other existing prohibitions against smoking.

“It specifically says it doesn’t exempt a person from arrest for operating a vehicle while under the influence or use while operating,” White told her caucus. “It doesn’t allow inmates at correctional institutions or facilities to possess. Employers do not have to allow possession or people under the influence.”

The legislation also carries civil and criminal penalties for other offenses. Furnishing marijuana to those under the age of 21 would be treated with the same criminal or civil penalties for furnishing alcohol to under-age people. Civil penalties would be levied on those who consume marijuana in a public space.

The bill includes graduated penalties for possessing more than the amount allowed under the bill’s provisions, as well as civil and criminal penalties for selling marijuana without a permit. The amount of marijuana in a person’s possession to be considered trafficking is lowered from 50 pounds to 25 pounds in the bill and carries a higher criminal penalty.

Municipalities would be allowed to prohibit or regulate the retail portions of the bill, but will not be able to prohibit personal cultivation plots. Primary and secondary schools could still impose their own penalties for possession of Marijuana, and landlords could prohibit the possession of marijuana.

Those convicted of crimes that no longer considered to be a criminal act if the bill is passed would have their records expunged.

Campbell said he opposes the legalization of marijuana but will not use any parliamentary procedures “or try anything procedurally that would try and bury this bill.” He said, however, that the Senate will need to act quickly on the bill or set it aside.

“The last thing that I think the Senate needs is for the marijuana legalization to be what controls the session,” Campbell said. “I’ve asked them to do it in a very quick amount of time and if we don’t do it within a few weeks then I think we pass this off and look to see what other issues are out there that need to be developed, maybe into the summer or the next session.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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