MONTPELIER — The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday in favor of a bill to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, sending the measure to the full chamber after Democratic leaders secured enough votes to ensure it passes.
The Judiciary Committee voted 8 to 3 in favor of H.170, which would make it legal in Vermont to possess 1 ounce or less of marijuana, up to two mature marijuana plants and up to four immature plants. It is expected to hit the House floor next week.
The bill mirrors the policy already in place in Washington, D.C. But it does not create a legal, regulated market like the one that exists in Colorado and that was passed by the Senate last year.
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, the Judiciary Committee chairwoman, said she views the bill as addressing a criminal justice issue that continues to exist in Vermont.
“We know that we still are having a disproportionate number of people of color incarcerated for marijuana charges. Despite our (decriminalization) system, we still have groups of people who do have … administrative civil tickets,” she said. “That lack of parity has been very disturbing to me.”
Grad noted that she was not on board with legalization efforts last year, but said the testimony she heard this year, and the bill structured by the committee, changed her mind.
“As many of you know I was very cautious and concerned and not particularly supportive of it but for me a lot has changed in the last year,” she said. “My concerns in terms of youth and prevention efforts has changed.”
Grad also noted that the state has taken steps to increase the number of law enforcement officers that specialize in detecting drivers impaired by drugs. “We’ve heard that’s really what will work,” she said.
The committee’s vice chairman, Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Newbury, said he, too, supports the bill because it falls short of the legal, regulated market passed by the Senate last year that failed spectacularly on the House floor. He said the House bill is “the right policy for Vermont right now” because it removes all penalties for possession of small amounts of pot.
“I have some concerns about going to a tax and regulate model. I didn’t support it last year,” Conquest said.
The bill was also supported Wednesday by Republican Rep. Thomas Burditt of West Rutland, the committee’s ranking member, because it includes no government intervention, which he said appealed to his libertarian streak.
“I like this bill. There is minimal government intervention and when I look at the other states, some of the other states that have legalized, I look at maximum government intervention and you hear all the horror stories coming out of the states where they have the maximum intervention,” Burditt said.
The bill did not make last Friday’s crossover deadline, which required policy bills to clear their committee’s of jurisdiction by that date. But Senate leaders said they would allow the House to work on rounding up support in the House this week.
The bill had been sitting in the House Judiciary Committee for the last several weeks as Democratic House leaders worked on shoring up support. Grad told reporters Wednesday that House leaders let her know that the committee could advance the bill because enough support was secured to pass on the floor.
Democratic leaders in the House have been trying to navigate the politics of legalizing marijuana. Some members remain adamantly opposed, while others favor the House approach of removing criminal penalties without creating a regulated market. And others prefer the regulated market approach passed by the Senate last year.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said the Senate still favors a regulated market and indicated it might amend the House bill to include it.
“I can’t predict what the Senate might do, but I think that it’s been clear since the beginning of the session that the Senate wanted to see the House take a step towards legalization. The House Judiciary Committee has done that and we’re very happy about that,” he said. “But, where we go from here and what passes the Senate may be very different. We’ll cross the bridge when we get to it. There’s still a long way to go.”
Even if the House and Senate agree on a path for legalization, Republican Gov. Phil Scott has indicated he is not likely to support legalization unless police have a tool to determine whether drivers are impaired. Such a roadside test does not currently exist.