key lawmakers craft legal pot compromise

MONTPELIER — Key lawmakers have sent a proposal to Gov. Phil Scott that makes changes to a marijuana legalization bill he vetoed last month ahead of next week’s veto session.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said language he crafted with House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Maxine Grad was sent to the governor’s office Thursday. The two lawmakers are awaiting feedback from the governor on their plan to address his concerns with S.22, which was vetoed by Scott on May 24.

Sen. Dick Sears

“I’ve been working with several other senators and met last week … with Maxine Grad and we agreed on a new proposal. We sent copies of the proposal to the governor. We haven’t heard back from them yet,” Sears said.

The legislation seeks to legalize the possession of up to 1 ounce of dry marijuana and the cultivation of up to two mature marijuana plants and four immature plants beginning on July 1, 2018. The bill also included a commission to craft legislation for lawmakers to consider next year that would create a regulated retail market for marijuana.

Scott, in his veto message to the Legislature, outlined several concerns with the bill. He offered a “path forward” if lawmakers could address his concerns before the June 21 veto session.

Scott said the path forward must include strengthening penalties for providing or selling marijuana to minors, as well as stronger penalties for using marijuana in vehicles and in the presence of minors. As passed by the Legislature, the bill creates a fine for marijuana use in a car that is equal to having an open container of alcohol.

Scott said he is also dissatisfied with the commission created in the bill. He wants it to contain a broader range of professionals, including representatives from the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Health, the Department of Taxes and members of the substance abuse prevention and treatment community. The commission’s scope must also include looking an impairment level for operating a vehicle, some kind of impairment testing mechanism, an education and prevention strategy for youth and a plan for continued monitoring and reporting on impacts to public health.

According to Sears, the proposal presented to the governor includes a technical amendment that defines public spaces where using marijuana would not be allowed. Language was also updated to clarify what constitutes dispensing marijuana.

Sears said several civil penalties in the bill were also enhanced, including a new $200 fine for a passenger using marijuana in a vehicle, a $500 fine for using marijuana in a vehicle with a minor and a $500 fine for cultivating marijuana at a child care center or after school program.

Gov. Phil Scott (Times Argus/Stefan Hard)

One of the more difficult changes to agree on, according to Sears, is whether law enforcement officers can seize marijuana in certain situations. The original legislation did not provide authority for law enforcement officers to seize any marijuana. The compromise language — approved by the defender general, the attorney general and the Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union — allows for the seizure of marijuana if someone possesses more than the law allows, possesses the drug where they are not allowed to or consumes it where it is not allowed.

“Could you seize the marijuana? The answer is yes with the change we made,” Sears said.

Changes were also made to the commission in an attempt to appease the governor. The commission includes six members to be appointed by the governor, as well as six by the Legislature. The Attorney General is also included in the commission.

“He gets six, we get six and the attorney general is kind of the … in between person,” Sears said.

The commission was original required to report back to lawmakers in November with its recommended legislation for a retail market. Scott said he wanted the report deadline pushed back beyond the July 1, 2018 legalization date. Sears said the compromise pushes the report deadline back to Jan. 15, 2018.

“This is like our first attempt to negotiate with them. We’ll see where they’re at and we’ll respond to their concerns,” Sears said.

Scott Spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley said the governor planned to respond to the proposal Monday directly to Sears and Grad. No response was delivered as of 6 p.m., however.

“We are very encouraged to get a good counterproposal to what the governor put forward,” Kelley said. “All of our conversations on this have been productive. We think we’re working towards an agreement and appreciate everyone putting forward a good-faith effort.”

Dave Silberman, an attorney and legalization advocate who worked on passing S.22, said the proposal from Sears and Grad seem to address the governor’s concerns, which he said are “not particularly unreasonable.”

“I thought the governor’s proposals were pretty modest to begin with. They were sort of of the nature that makes you wonder, why did he veto it at all because they are so minor?” Silberman said.

The increased fines meet the governor’s requests, Silberman said, and the updated language clarifies legislative intent on other issues that concerned him.

“They’ve really tried to meet the governor not half way — they’ve tried to meet him 100 percent of the way and say, ‘Sure, these are reasonable proposals,’” he said.

Silberman said it is now up to Scott to prove that he is willing to follow the path forward that he laid out.

“We can’t let him off the hook yet. The job is not done and it’s up to him to get it past the finish line now,” Silberman said.

It remains unclear if lawmakers will be able to fully address Scott’s concerns in the two-day legislative session. There are not enough votes in the House to override the veto, and House Republicans have indicated they will not suspend rules to expedite passage of a replacement bill. Without a rules suspension, the legislative process will take longer than the scheduled veto session.

If the governor and lawmakers reach agreement on a replacement, Sears said he is hopeful House Republicans will agree to a rules suspension.

“I think it really is in the governor’s court,” he said. “What we’ve done goes a long way toward meeting what he said he wanted. If, in fact, he gets on board with this I think it’s up to the House Republicans to decide if they want to go against their governor. That’s the hold up.”

Kelley said if lawmakers and the governor reach agreement there are options to pass it during the veto session — even if House Republicans refuse to suspend the rules.

“We can still make progress even if they’re not able to suspend the rules,” she said. “There are still other ways to get this done in this session.”

Sears said extending the veto session beyond two days is not likely, however.

“I can’t see the Legislature staying in session … for whatever it costs to do this,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6 p.m. to include additional comments.

Read the proposed changes below:

3 thoughts on “key lawmakers craft legal pot compromise

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