Senate Judiciary advances pot bill on 4 to 1 vote

MONTPELIER — The legalization of marijuana in Vermont received its first affirmative votes from lawmakers Friday as the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation on a 4 to 1 vote.

The downsized legislation to allow the legal possession, consumption and sale of marijuana in the state is now headed to the Senate Finance Committee, which will attempt to determine how legalized marijuana will be taxed.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4 to 1 Friday to advance a bill that legalizes marijuana. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4 to 1 Friday to advance a bill that legalizes marijuana. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, worked to amend a bill introduced by Sens. Jeanette White, D-Windham and Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, to create a bill that he would support and met the conditions laid out by Gov. Peter Shumlin. The governor called for the legalization of pot in his State of the State address earlier this month.

“In my career and even before I came here I always wanted to see … a sane criminal justice policy. I think this bill is a sane piece of criminal justice policy. Lifting the civil penalties for those who possess an ounce or under … is sane criminal justice policy,” Sears said, before voting for the measure.

Shumlin issued a statement Friday supporting the bill. He appeared with Sears a news conference earlier in the week to indicate his support of Sears effort.

“This legislation meets the principles I outlined in my State of the State Address and I believe it provides the framework for our state to cautiously, step-by-step and in the Vermont way end the failed war on drugs policy of marijuana prohibition,” he said. “This debate is about whether we can take a smarter approach towards marijuana, which is already widely available and used by tens of thousands of Vermonters. Promoting prevention, keeping marijuana out of the hands of kids, getting rid of illegal drug dealers, and doing a better job responding to impaired drivers already on our roads, I believe this legislation is a huge improvement on the failed war on drugs.”

The bill approved by the committee Friday removes the civil violations in place associated with possessing less than 1 ounce of marijuana. It leaves in place criminal charges for those that possess more than 1 ounce. Sears said he was unwilling to change the state’s existing criminal possession laws.

The possession and use of marijuana would not take effect until July 1, 2018, allowing time for the state to develop rules and processes for legalization.

The bill also disallows any home-grown marijuana — something advocates of legalization said they are disappointed with. Dispensing or selling marijuana without the licenses created in the bill would remain a crime.

The bill also prohibits consuming marijuana in a public place and allows employers and landlords to ban marijuana use on their property. The state will be allowed to license between 10 and 20 cultivators and between 20 and 40 retail outlets.

Under the bill, anyone furnishing marijuana or alcohol to people under the age of 21 would face stiffer penalties. It also prevents advertising and labeling from appealing to youth and prohibits the distribution of “handbills.”

“This is not something that was done lightly. The committee has done stellar work in trying to address every conceivable issue that might pop up,” Benning said.

Benning, who sponsored the original bill, said he was motivated to legalize marijuana because of his own personal experience. Benning said, prior to voting in favor of the bill, that he was charged with possession of marijuana as a youth in 1975 simply because he was in a location where marijuana pipes were present. He said he was “naive” to think that the police would understand.

“The kid back in 1975 had from that point forward understood that the way we have approached this substance has been totally wrong, hasn’t worked and has to change. This is a first attempt. It may not be perfect, but it is the first attempt at actually making that change in a more intelligent way,” he said.

Matt Simon with the Marijuana Policy Project said he was happy to see the bill advance but hopes homegrown marijuana will be allowed in the final version of the bill.

“I think this bill comes together a little bit more every day the committees work on it. We know there’s a lot left to go in the coming weeks, but so far so good,” he said. “I would say that most members of our coalition feel that homegrown should be included in this policy, but it will be included in the study commission and we’ll continue the conversation there if the bill passes.”

Benning, citing a proverb, said advocates should be patient.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” he said. “I see this as a single step in the right direction.”

Benning also praised Sears for shepherding a bill through the committee that attempts to find common ground between opponents and proponents of legalization.

“I know that he has been personally taking it on the chin from people on both sides … and has suffered the arrows and bullets coming from all different directions. Honestly, he has done everything he possibly could to live up to the governor’s expectations and try to do something to step us on a path to something that we have not done before,” Benning said.

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, was the only committee member to oppose the bill. Nitka told reporters after the vote that she could not support legalization based on her work as a social worker.

The bill now heads to the Senate Finance Committee, which must determine how marijuana would be taxed if the Legislature approves legalization.

Read a summary of the bill below:

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