MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears announced legislation Tuesday to “cautiously and deliberately legalize marijuana in Vermont.”
Shumlin said the “war on drugs” had failed when it came to marijuana prohibition.
“The black market is failing Vermont. When you have 80,000 Vermonters who admitted to buying pot … every single month in the last year, and you can assume that since it’s illegal that number is higher, you know we’ve got a problem to solve,” the governor said a State House news conference Tuesday, flanked by Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and Sears, D-Bennington.
Shumlin called for the legalization of marijuana in his State of the State address earlier this month, with some conditions, including:
— A legal market must keep marijuana and other drugs out of the hands of underage kids. With 83 percent of Vermont youth saying that marijuana is easy or somewhat easy to obtain, the current system doesn’t do this.
— The tax imposed must be low enough to wipe out the black market and get rid of the illegal drug dealers.
— Revenue from legalization must be used to expand addiction prevention programs.
— Law enforcement’s capacity to improve the response to impaired drivers under the influence of marijuana who are already on Vermont’s roads must be strengthened.
— The sale of edibles must be prohibited at first.
Shumlin said he met with Sears last summer and asked him to begin considering such a bill. “Sen. Sears said, ‘I’m not sure I’m for it but I’m willing to look at it,’” Shumlin said.
Sears, through his committee’s work, has “come up with other smart, rational recommendations that will lead us to take a first step to removing the current civil penalties for an ounce or less of marijuana,” he said.
That includes disallowing any homegrown marijuana under the law.
“When the governor’s representative for marijuana in Colorado says, ‘This is something we wish we hadn’t done,’ allow homegrown, I think you have to take that advice seriously,” Sears said. “It’s created many problems for them in terms of enforcement. It’s created what’s called a gray market where people are selling excess. It’s not just simple.”
The bill Sears hopes to move through his committee would not change any of the criminal statutes regarding marijuana. Instead, it would remove civil violations for the possession of marijuana under 1 ounce.
The legislation outlined Tuesday would also restrict anyone under the age of 21 from being permitted on the premises of a marijuana establishment. Advertising and labeling of marijuana will not be allowed to appeal to children or youth. Marijuana establishments, such as retail outlets are prohibited from being located within 1,000 feet of a school or child care center. And, civil and criminal penalties will be established for furnishing marijuana to people under 21. Current civil and criminal penalties will also remain in place for those using or possessing marijuana underage.
Shumlin said the state’s effort to legalize small amounts of pot is not an effort to condone the use of the drug.
“Vermonters shouldn’t be smoking pot. Not a good idea. I don’t think Vermonters should be drinking too much, either. That’s really not a good idea. I don’t think Vermonters should be smoking cigarettes. They will kill you. But we must move the black market of marijuana to a smarter, more careful approach where regulated market keeps it out of the hands of kids and we put the dealers out of business,” Shumlin said.
The legislation calls for 10 additional law enforcement officers to be trained as drug recognition experts and an additional 25 new state troopers to be added over the next three years. It also calls on the Governor’s Highway Safety Program to expand its public education and prevention campaign to discourage impaired or drugged driving.
“We absolutely need more troopers to be able to complete this task,” Flynn said.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee will work with the Department of Health to include prevention provisions and the Senate Finance Committee will work to set a tax rate that undercuts the black market, Shumlin said.
At recent events, Sears said his committee would make a decision by Friday on whether to move legislation out of the committee. The decision Tuesday does not mean the committee has acted to approve the legislation.
“I don’t know if I’m going to vote for the bill yet, but we’ll see how it goes on Friday,” Sears said.