Legalizing Recreational Marijuana Under Scrutiny By Vermont Legislators

Jan 22, 2016

Vermont legalized medical marijuana in 2004.  Now, some legislative committees are taking testimony on the controversial idea of legalizing recreational marijuana.  But there is considerable doubt whether the Legislature will actually approve a bill this session. 

The issue has been on the agenda of several committees in Montpelier since the Legislature reconvened this month.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee took testimony on regulating the personal possession and cultivation, and taxing commercial sales of recreational marijuana.  In the morning, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee studied the possible health effects of legalizing marijuana.
Earlier in the week the Senate Finance Committee reviewed banking and tax considerations. It also took testimony from Washington and Colorado experts to find out what those states have learned after legalizing recreational marijuana. Last week the House Ways and Means Committee assessed taxation and regulation.

Despite the flurry of activity reviewing the potential of legalized marijuana, it’s unclear whether legislators will actually craft a bill.

Vermont Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson says while there’s a lot of talk, nothing has been budgeted for possible legalization.   “My expectation would be that a bill that included any kind of legalization language would also include some language around resources for implementing that as a separate thing rather than come out of the budget that we have right now.  I want wait and see what happens there.”

House Minority Leader Republican Don Turner is a fire and rescue chief who opposes legalization.   “I work closely with our local law enforcement who have a very tough job. And I don’t think introducing a new drug, a new problem into the mainstream is the way to go.  I can’t support it. I’m not going to support it.  As a caucus we have not taken this up.  There’s no caucus position.  We are trying to wait and see what the bill says and how it’s going and so on.  But there’s no money in the budget to deal with marijuana or enforcement or deregulation, whatever they’re going to do with it.”

Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith notes there’s one crucial move by lawmakers in his chamber that has yet to occur.  “The checks that I’ve done suggest that it does not have the votes in the House to get through the committees of jurisdiction.  So it looks like it’s tough sledding right now.  I’ve made it clear that I support legalization with certain qualifications and we haven’t even seen a bill yet. So understanding whether those qualifications are met is impossible for me to say. So, you know, a month into the session, or three weeks into the session, not having seen a bill on a very controversial issue does not seem like a recipe for success.”  
The AP’s Dave Gram asks: “Does the governor need to push harder if he really wants it?”  
Smith responds: “I think somebody better get a bill out there and figure out what the hell it is.”

Bills have been introduced in the Vermont Senate. S-95 and 241 would allow those 21 years of age or older to possess and cultivate limited amounts of cannabis for personal use.  Both have been referred to committees.

In 2013, Vermont decriminalized marijuana possession, replacing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts with civil fines.