Vermont Legal Marijuana Bill Struggles

By Tom Angell | March 17, 2017

Legalization advocates began 2017 relatively optimistic about the chances of enacting cannabis law reforms through the legislature.

Last year, a full-scale tax-and-regulate bill cleared the Senate, though later stalled in the House.

Plans were scaled back this year to focus on a noncommercial approach that would simply legalize low-level possession and home cultivation of a small number of plants without setting up a system of regulated sales, similar to the approach that is in place in Washington, D.C.

The House Judiciary Committee had a bill to that effect, H. 170, on its agenda for this Wednesday, and several advocates in Montpelier told MassRoots in recent days that they expected it to easily pass.

However, the legislation was stripped from the agenda without explanation and not added back. And it's not listed for any of next week's committee meetings, either.

That's a problem because Friday is a key "crossover" deadline by which bills are supposed to emerge from their originating committee onto the floor.

That doesn't necessarily mean the idea is dead for the year, however, but it does mean that the Senate will have to agree to suspend those deadline rules in order for the bill to advance.

The Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, sponsored by the national Marijuana Policy Project, put out an urgent email alert to supporters on Friday asking them to immediately contact their legislators in support of the bill.

As it currently stands, the legislation would eliminate all penalties for adults over 21 for one ounce or less of marijuana, two mature plants and up to four immature plants, along with the cannabis produced by those plants if stored properly at home. Whereas the state has already decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of cannabis, the new bill would extend that up to two ounces.

(A separate bill, H.490, would create a broader system of legal and regulated cultivation and sales, though it is seen as much less likely to pass this year.)

Gov. Phil Scott (R) says he's not necessarily opposed to ending prohibition but would prefer that the state wait to get more experience from other states. He also says he is not willing to sign any legalization bill until the state has in place better systems to detect and prevent impaired driving. It is unclear if he would veto the noncommercial legalization approach if sent to his desk by lawmakers.

The bill is drawing opposition from a national anti-legalization organization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM).

SAM leaders have often said their main focus is preventing the commercialization of marijuana, and have strained to characterize the group's position as a moderate approach that doesn't seek to punish people for personal possession or small-scale home cultivation.

“You could grow a plant at home, actually. You could homegrow,” SAM President Kevin Sabet said last year, for example. “You could do gifting. You could do a kind of decriminalization where basically we turn the other way.”

Nonetheless, even though the Vermont legislation does exactly that, SAM is still working to defeat it.

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) a cofounder and honorary advisor of the group, wrote to House Judiciary Committee members on SAM letterhead this week urging them oppose the bill, saying it "would create a large black market that could take generations to undo, and endanger the health and safety of Vermont communities."

A study commissioned by the state government and conducted by the RAND Corporation found that there is already an illegal marijuana market in Vermont worth somewhere between $125 million to $225 million per year.

Kennedy added that the legislation "would also invite organized criminal groups to take advantage of the law to 'hide in plain sight,' as they have done in other states with similar provisions for home cultivation. Such a law would also encourage additional marijuana youth by young people, encourage drugged driving on Vermont's roads, and marijuana use on the job."

It is unclear if Kennedy's letter was a key motivator for the bill being taken off the committee agenda this week, or if other factors were involved.

Nonetheless legalization advocates are keeping hope alive that the legislation can still be enacted though procedural moves even in light of the Friday crossover deadline.

"H. 170 is still alive, but there is definitely a urgent need for Vermonters to call and email their representatives," Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told MassRoots in an interview.

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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