Senate passes marijuana legalization bill with tax-and-regulate language

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate, frustrated by inaction in the House and hoping to apply pressure on the chamber down the hall, advanced a seed-to-sale marijuana legalization bill Friday by a veto-proof margin.

The action in the Senate Friday was no surprise — members of the Senate Judiciary Committee announced Wednesday a plan to amend a House bill to include language creating a tax-and-regulate legal marijuana market in Vermont. After clearing procedural hurdles, the effort prevailed on a 21 to 9 vote — large enough to override a potential veto by Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, center, speaks to Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, left, and Senate President Pro Tem, D-Chittenden, right, about a procedural move he planned to use to debate a marijuana legalization bill. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, was the lead sponsor of the amendment that mimics legislation passed last year by the Senate, but failed spectacularly in the House. Members of the Senate were expecting the House to pass its own version of marijuana legalization this year, but that effort stalled when the bill made it to the House only to be jettisoned by Democratic leaders in the House back to committee because it lacked the votes to pass.

The House version, H.170, would simply remove all criminal penalties for the possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana and cultivation of two or fewer mature marijuana plants.

With House action seemingly halted this year, White and other senators felt compelled to act and put something on the table for the House to consider — either in the final two or three weeks of this legislative session or over the off-session until lawmakers return for the second half of the legislative biennium in January.

“We know that prohibition has not worked. For many years we have known that. Marijuana is out there. It’s being used. It’s creating an underground market that serves no one,” White said. “It serves no one except for the dealers that are out there.”

Sen. Jeanette White

The language given preliminary approval by the Senate Friday is nearly identical to S.241 from last year. It would allow for the regulation and taxation of retail sales of marijuana. It also includes prevention and education components, as well as funding for more specialized law enforcement officers known as drug recognition experts who are trained to detect motorists impaired by marijuana.

“The strong education prevention program established in last year’s bill … remains,” White said. “The commitment to address impaired driving remains in here.”

Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, challenged whether the amendment was germane to the underlying bill, H.167, which seeks to improve pre-trial services for mental health and drug addiction services. Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive and Democrat, ruled in Flory’s favor.

But Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made a motion to suspend the rules and consider the amendment germane. That effort easily secured the required two-thirds majority after he withdrew an earlier motion to override Zuckerman’s ruling, which some members strongly objected to.

Flory told her colleagues they were “yet again going down a dangerous path” as she raised several concerns about the bill on the Senate floor. She said those who own their own home would be able to grow and use pot, while those who rent may be prohibited by a landlord from doing so. She also said children could be exposed to second-hand smoke from adults who use marijuana legally in their own home.

“Alcohol you actually have to drink to get drunk. Marijuana, if you’re in the same room with someone, close room with someone that’s smoking marijuana, can’t you get the effects?” she said. “In the case of marijuana, the child simply has to breath.”

Sen. Bobby Starr

Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, who opposed the amendment, lamented the fact that the chamber was debating legalization again.

“I don’t know what there is quite about this but I do know how to add and how to subtract. We’re spending millions and millions, I bet pushing $100 million, for drug treatment, rehabilitation and education about drugs today,” he said. “Here we are passing another drug to spend more money on treatment and care on people when they get caught up.”

Sears, speaking as “one gray-haired guy to another gray-haired guy,” sough to rebut Starr.

“Roughly 80,000 people in Vermont — residents, not including any tourists that might come here — use marijuana,” Sears said. “If you had any other drug that 80,000 people were using, you’d certainly look at whether or not they should all be criminals.”

Sears said many of constituents will soon be able to purchase marijuana legally in Massachusetts. The marijuana they purchase is “probably safer than what they’re buying from the local dealer, whomever they may be,” he said.

Sears said the House will determine whether or not to act, but the Senate should “do the right thing here.”

“Let the other body consider whether they want to advance or they want to go backwards,” he said.

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, voted against the bill last year but voted in favor of it this time after asking White how it will improve public safety.

White said regulating the drug will help control access.

“It’s the wild west out there. It’s totally unregulated,” White said. “This would control the quality of it. We would know what we’re getting.”

She also said drug dealers selling marijuana to do not care how old someone is when they sell.

Bray was convinced.

“It’s already part of the state’s culture,” he said. “We are better off taking the steps proposed in the bill than continuing to have the status quo, which is really not a thoughtful system.”

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex Orleans, noted that a recent CBS News poll found that 61 percent of Americans support legalization of marijuana.

“Many of those folks are good, hard-working, tax-paying citizens who shouldn’t have to feel like criminals if they want to use cannabis in their own home,” he said.

Sen. John Rodgers

The Senate must still give final approval to the measure, which is expected to happen Tuesday. Then the amended bill will head back to the House, which can choose to consider the proposal on the House floor or it could sit on the bill and decide what to do next year.

Scott has said he believes marijuana legalization is inevitable, but he wants to wait until there is a roadside test law enforcement officers can use to determine if someone is driving under the influence.

Katherine Lavasseur, chief of staff to Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, said the bill will be referred to a House committee if the Senate gives it final approval next week. She did not say if the House would take a vote on it but said it varies greatly from the legalization bill passed by the House Judiciary Committee.

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