Senators look to advance discussion on legal pot

MONTPELIER — Frustrated by a lack of action in the House, the Senate will consider two amendments in the coming days that would put the state on a path toward legalizing marijuana.

The Senate Judiciary Committee laid out its plans Tuesday to offer various amendments. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said there is “general frustration” in the Senate that the House has been unable or unwilling to act on its own bill this year, which prompted a review among some senators on how to move the conversation forward.

Sen. Dick Sears

“We had fully counted on the House passing H.170 this year. When they got to the floor I think there was a big deflation for us in the Senate. At that point we felt like, ‘What do we do next?’” Sears said. “We’ve been trying to figure out now what we do because it ain’t getting to us.”

The House bill in question sought to legalize marijuana by removing all criminal penalties for possessing up to 1 ounce of dry marijuana and cultivation of up to two mature marijuana plants. It does not seek to create a retail market.

But after clearing the House Judiciary Committee and heading to the House floor for a vote, House leaders jettisoned the bill to the House Human Services Committee when it became apparent that it lacked enough votes to pass. The bill has remained in committee for the past two weeks as leaders look to round up the votes.

Democratic leaders still seem to lack the votes.

“We are still working as a caucus on what we’re going to do as next step on the legalization of marijuana bill,” House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, told reporters Tuesday.

The Senate is tired of waiting and no longer expects any action from the House, however.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, plans to amend a House bill now in the Senate to include language passed by the Senate last year that creates a legal, regulated marijuana market in Vermont. The language cleared the Senate last year but failed spectacularly in the House.

“I think it needs to be done and clearly we have to do,” White said.

The underlying bill, H.167, that passed the House sought to study what level of possession of various drugs would constitute misdemeanor or felony charges. The Senate changed it drastically, turning it into a bill dealing with pre-trial services for defendants.

Sen. Jeanette White

White’s amendment would look to retain provisions in the marijuana bill passed by the Senate last year dealing with education and prevention and would add the ability for Vermonters to grow their own marijuana.

Sears said White’s amendment, which he supports and is likely to co-sponsor, will most likely not be taken up by the House but will give the House and the public something to consider until the second half of the biennium begins next January.

“The goal there is to have something and maybe the public would pressure on House members to do something,” he said.

Sears is also planning to introduce his own less ambitious amendment to create a study commission. With Maine and Massachusetts moving forward with legalization, and Canada to the north moving in that direction, Sears said he wants to ensure that Vermont is prepared for the inevitable.

“Everybody, including the governor, has said it’s inevitable — some day it’s going to happen. So, let’s be prepared when it happens,” he said.

Some House and Senate members met several times last summer to continue preparing for marijuana legalization, but it was not enough to spur the House to act this year.

“Obviously what we did last year didn’t do much good,” he said, noting the commission he plans to propose will involve the public, the administration, lawmakers and others to make recommendations on how to implement a seed-to-sale legal marijuana market.

Sears said he will look to attach it to some bill in the Senate on Friday or early next week.

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