House advances pot legalization

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House narrowly passed a marijuana legalization bill late Tuesday night after hours of debate, but the legislation is not expected to advance further this year.

The bill. H.170, passed around 11:30 p.m. on a 74 to 68 vote, after two attempts to send it back to committee and several amendments aimed at weakening or delaying it. The bill allows for the legal possession of up to 1 ounce of dry marijuana and the cultivation of up to two mature marijuana plants and four immature plants.

The vote was a victory for proponents of legalization, but the legislation is not expected to advance beyond the House this year. The Senate has approved a legalization bill of its own, but that measure goes far beyond the limited House bill. The Senate is seeking a tax-and-regulate marijuana market that allows retail sales.

Lawmakers began debating the bill around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday after a dinner break. Rep. Larry Cupoli, R-Rutland, tried to have the bill committed to the House Transportation Committee, arguing that the issue of safety on the state’s roads needed more attention.

Later, Transportation Committee Chairman Pat Brennan, R-Colchester, made the motion again. Both failed.

The House approved an amendment by Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, that seeks to add marijuana to a provision in state statute that prohibits open alcohol containers in vehicles.

The House then fended off several amendments that sought to undermine the bill.

Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, sought to retain civil penalties for pot possession while changing criminal penalties for possessing marijuana plants to civil violations.

Rep. Cynthia Browning

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, offered three amendments that sought to delay implementation of legalization until certain benchmarks are met.

One of Browning’s amendments sought additional efforts to prevent marijuana use in youth before legalization takes effect.

“We are tempting our young people. Our young people are our future. They need to be able to develop in school,” she said. “We need to protect them. In order to do that we need robust programs.”

Another Browning amendment sought delay until law enforcement have a roadside test to check for impairment in drivers. She said lawmakers “bear some measure of responsibility” for the safety of Vermont’s roads.

“The next time there’s a terrible accident and the driver is under the influence of marijuana, will any of you be thinking, ‘Wait a minute, did what we do … with H.170 have anything to do with that?’” she said. “I hope you are measuring your responsibility to put the safety of Vermonters who use our roads above the pleasure and satisfaction of those who choose to indulge.”

An amendment offered by Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, D-Burlington, sought to create a tax-and-regulate system similar to what the Senate has passed. That was rejected on a 42 to 99 vote.

The House is expected to give final approval to the bill Wednesday after several more amendments are considered. But with the legislative session slated to end Saturday, further action on the bill is not expected this year. Lawmakers can consider the proposals passed by the House and Senate next year during the second half of the legislative biennium.

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