Senate gives preliminary approval to marijuana legalization

MONTPELIER — The question of allowing anyone to grow marijuana dominated a discussion Wednesday in which the Senate gave preliminary approval to legalization.

By a vote of 16 to 13, Senate lawmakers gave the initial go-ahead to a bill that would allow for commercial cultivation and the sale of marijuana, setting the possibility for full Senate approval Thursday.

On the floor, the bill had the support of someone who, months ago, would have seemed an unlikely legalization advocate: Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

“If you had told me, even three months ago, that not only would I be voting yes, but speaking on the floor to defend the bill, I would have told you you were crazy,” said Sears, who said he was persuaded to support legalization following nearly a month of testimony and a series of public forums held around the state.

Under the terms of the bill, starting in January 2018, it will be legal to grow and sell marijuana, provided you are licensed by the Department of Public Safety. Growing licenses would be limited to no more than 30, and there would be no more than 15 retail establishments during the first year.

Vermont residents 21 and older would be able to purchase as much as half an ounce at a time, while nonresidents 21 and older would be limited to one-quarter of an ounce.

The crafters of the bill attempted to address many of the concerns commonly expressed over the prospect of legalization; it would direct revenue collected through the 25-percent tax on sales to expand police training to recognize impaired driving, and money to support efforts to stop and prevent youth consumption.

Also, the bill makes clear that employers are in no way obligated to accommodate marijuana use or possession at work or while performing job duties.

The debate prompted a number of Senate lawmakers to recount their own experiences with marijuana, from Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, who recounted what he called a “fraudulent arrest” for possession in 1975, and from Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, who discussed long-time pot-smoking acquaintances.

Sen. Joe Benning

Sen. Joe Benning

“These are people I’ve known for 50 years and I avoid their phone calls because they are potheads and they are boring,” said McCormack, while raising the idea that, rather the pot making them boring, they might have started to smoke pot because they are boring.

McCormack was among a number of senators who objected to the bill prohibiting people from growing their own without a commercial license, which would be limited in number and range in price from $15,000 to $25,000, a cost that would be nonrefundable if the license is denied.

Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, said that while she supports legalization “in theory,” she would vote against the bill.

“I believe this bill does not leave room for the home grown and the small growers who would like to be a part of this new economy,” Balint said.

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, proposed an amendment that would have allowed an individual to grow as many as six plants, which was replaced on the floor with an amendment to instead study the issue.

Rodgers said he planned to return with another amendment today to allow for more small-grower licenses, and at a more reasonable cost.

Following the vote, Gov. Peter Shumlin expressed his support for the bill.

“With over 80,000 Vermonters admitting to using marijuana on a monthly basis, it could not be more clear that the current system is broken,” Shumlin said. “I am proud that the Senate took lessons learned from states that have gone before us, asked the right questions and passed an incredibly thoughtful, common-sense plan that will bring out of the shadows an activity that one in seven Vermonters engage in on a regular basis.”

Shumlin said he would sign a bill that includes a provision allowing Vermonters to grow their own without a license, providing that grow occurs outdoors. Shumlin said he would oppose unlicensed indoor cultivation because of issues ranging from mold to odor.

josh.ogorman@timesargus.com

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