Senate approves marijuana legalization

MONTPELIER — Senators made it easier for the little guy to break into the cultivation business when they gave their final approval to marijuana legalization.

By a vote of 17 to 12 Thursday afternoon, the Senate approved what has been arguably been the most debated bill of this legislative session, and in doing so, sends it on to House for further discussion.

“It’s a relief for me to have it out of the Senate,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and someone who became an unlikely advocate for legalization.

Sears thanked his fellow lawmakers, including colleagues such as Sens. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, and Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, both of whom voted for the bill while in committee despite their opposition, which allowed the bill to come to the Senate floor for debate.

“I’m appreciative of even those who opposed it,” Sears said. “I think it’s a great example of people working together even when they oppose having legislation, they’ll at least debate it on the floor, and it’s unfortunate that’s not happening in Washington D.C.”

On Wednesday, the preliminary vote on the bill was 16 to 13, but on Thursday, the bill picked up an additional supporter: Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham.

Sen. Becca Balint

Sen. Becca Balint

On Wednesday, Balint said that while she supports legalization in theory, she opposed the bill because it restricted cultivation to those people who had $15,000 to $25,000 to pay for a nonrefundable application fee for a chance to receive a limited number of licenses.

However, Balint said she was persuaded to change her vote Thursday following the introduction of an amendment from Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, to create smaller, more reasonably priced licenses. Rodgers proposed creating licenses for smaller growing operations, with application fees ranging from $3,000 to $7,500.

“My feeling is that, with the size and cost of what was in the underlying bill, the cultivator licenses were out of reach for most Vermonters,” Rodgers said. “In my view, this makes it much more affordable for the average Vermonter who wants a cultivator license to have one.”

Sen. John Rodgers

Sen. John Rodgers

With a voice vote, Senate lawmakers adopted Rodgers’ amendment.

All in all, it took approximately two months for the bill to work its way through the Senate, which is roughly the amount of time the House will have when lawmakers return to Montpelier on March 7 following Town Meeting Week.

“No one should be able to use time as an excuse not to get this done,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin, who supports legalization. “My prediction is, what happened in the Senate may well happen in the House: logic, good information will encourage House members to do what they were elected to do, which is to make their best judgments to protect the safety, health and welfare of the people who elected them.”

House Speaker Shap Smith said the bill was not one identified as a top priority for his chamber at the start of the session.

Smith noted the Senate votes Wednesday and Thursday did not result in the bill having a lot of momentum coming into the House, where it will have to pass through at least three committees: appropriations, judiciary and ways and means.

Smith said the top priority of the House Judiciary Committee, where the bill will first land, is an overhaul of of way people are fined for driving with a suspended license. He predicted the committee will take up the marijuana legalization bill in approximately three weeks.

“I have concerns there is not the level of support within the House to move this across the line,” Smith said. “Most people believe the policy we have in place now is not working. I think the question that has to be answered is, will the alternative that has come over from the Senate address the areas where the policy isn’t working now?”

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