Update on marijuana legalization legislation

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Apr 14, 2016 No Comments ›› maxinegrad

Update on S.241: marijuana legalization legislationI am writing to update you on the status of the marijuana legalization legislation. Many Vermonters have contacted me with their thoughts about the issue of legalizing marijuana. It is fair to say that some feel our bill doesn’t go far enough, some believe it goes too far and still others tell us it is a reasonable compromise.

The Senate passed S.241, which is a comprehensive bill that sets forth the implementation of a legal state regulated marijuana market under the Department of Public Safety. In the proposal, marijuana would be sold in “establishments.”

The bill was sent to my committee—House Judiciary. The first vote in my committee was to table the bill—do nothing. Many of us felt that doing nothing would be irresponsible. It is important for the House to take a position on the question of legalization. The motion to table the bill failed 5-6.

I’ve set out to get as much feedback as possible on legalizing marijuana by holding hearings with other committees, holding a public hearing and posting all emails I received on the topic on my committee information page. Our committee heard from many voices and heard these following themes:  

  • First, it is clear to us that we have current public and highway safety challenges that are not being met, apart from legalization, including drugged driving, insufficient infrastructure at our state forensic lab, and law enforcement training.
  • Secondly, public education is currently needed, especially on the risks of marijuana. Although youth usage of marijuana has remained steady, the perception that regular use of marijuana causes harm has been declining. That is a trend we want to reverse.
  • Lastly, we also heard that legalization is coming to New England states and Canada. Officials from states where marijuana is legal testified that Vermont should have systems and infrastructure in place before legalization. Many of the needs I listed above are necessary, not only to address current challenges but for Vermont to be ready.

After 4 weeks of testimony, the Judiciary Committee voted out a highly revised, also known as strike-all version of S.241 that does not include legalization. The House Judiciary bill retained certain provisions of the Senate bill, including sections establishing an education and prevention program, creating a crime for certain dangerous chemical extraction processes (such as was uncovered recently in Winooski), amending our open container law to include marijuana, calling for the Vermont Governor’s Highway Safety Program to expand its public education and prevention campaign to include drugged driving, requiring additional training for law enforcement, and establishing a workforce study committee. The proposal also established a new impaired driving violation to account for the heightened traffic safety risk from poly-substance use—the combined consumption of both alcohol and marijuana.

The bill creates a commission to assist the Administration and General Assembly in the event Vermont wants to continue assessing the merits of a regulated system. The commission would allow Vermont to participate in the on-going national discussion around readiness for states facing legalization. While the commission language in the Senate version assumes legalization, the language in the Judiciary version focuses the work of the commission around responses to possible legalization in VT or in the region.

It also included amendments to our current “decrim” system in response to testimony that our current decrim system creates inequities and treats people wanting to use small amounts of marijuana for their personal use differently—those who choose to grow vs. those who purchase dried marijuana. Also, there are large penalty “cliffs” in our current decrim system that lead to criminal violations at low thresholds. Prosecutors and law enforcement testified that such a change would not impact current enforcement practices, that personal use is not a priority.

This final bill passed on a 6 to 5 vote, after removing the changes to our decriminalization law. The bill will be referred to Ways & Means next, and then the Appropriations Committee. Please let me know if you have any questions.

Please stay in touch: mgrad@leg.state.vt.us or 496-7667.