by Micheal Bielawski
MONTPELIER – A bill intended to loosen penalties on misdemeanor drug charges will have an extra amendment that changes its dynamic just a bit, with full-scale legalization of marijuana. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, offered the amendment on April 21 to H.167, which passed the House last month that directs the Legislative Council to study modifying penalties for small-scale drug possession.
White’s amendment is a slightly modified version of last year’s failed S.241 with some minor changes. This time Vermonters would be allowed to grow marijuana in small amounts within their home and it asks the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to take up some of the regulation efforts.
The amendment to the bill passed 21-to-9. When the amendment was first introduced, Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland asked if the amendment was relevant enough to the underlying bill. Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman indicated that it was not.
After about 10 minutes including two recesses which had senators huddle together and regroup their strategy, it was finally voted that rules would be suspended to allow presentation of the amendment to go forward. Twenty-two votes were needed to suspend rules, they just skipped by with 23 votes.
Until the vote, it was about 20 minutes of a conventional pros versus cons of legalization debate which very much echoed the debates in the same chamber over S.241 a year ago.
Those in favor cited that many Vermonters are already using it anyway, without any regulation or quality control, and those who were against talked about second-hand smoke, called it a wasted use of taxpayer dollars, and ultimately felt it would go on to die in the House again.
White opened-up with her legalization arguments.
“We know that prohibition has not worked,” she said. “It’s an underground market, it doesn’t serve kids, adults, (the general public’s best interest), except for the drug dealers.”
White stressed that there would still be tangible limitations on marijuana use. For instance, it would not allow for driving under the influence, it would not prohibit schools, municipalities, parole boards, employers or landlords from regulating or penalizing marijuana use. The bill also does not allow for edible forms of marijuana.
Flory was first to interrogate White on the bill. One of her primary concerns was second-hand smoke. She offered the hypothetical scenario of a mother with a young infant, asking if smoking would be permissible in that case with this bill.
White responded that yes it would be permissible, but ultimately so is smoking a cigarette or cigar today. She said just like with tobacco, users would need to use sensible discretion and there would be education efforts to better inform the public on this matter.
Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex Orleans, made the argument that taxpayer money would be better spent on other efforts, and he added that the bill is likely not to pass the House anyway.
“I’ve heard from nurses, doctors, police (other public servants) about how bad this would be to pass, yet you are passing a bill that is going to the next chamber probably to die,” said Starr.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, responded to Starr with some stats from a Rand Corporation Study on marijuana legalization. He said the study concluded there are around 80,000 users in Vermont as it is, and to criminalize what would amount to 12 percent of the population would be unrealistic.
“Are they all criminals?” Sears said … “That’s a lot of lawbreakers.”
He also reminded his Senate colleagues that legalization is spreading across the country and is already reaching Vermont borders.
“I live approximately 8 miles from the Massachusetts border,” he said. “My neighbors will be able to get a regulated from seed-to-sale product that is probably safer (than what comes from the street).”
In an April 19 Vermont Digger story, White is quoted saying that she does not expect legalization to pass this year, but does believe that getting this bill passed by the Senate will help accelerate the process for next year’s legislative session.
Michael Bielawski is a freelance writer for The Bridge, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.