Marijuana backers say more needs to be done than pass bill

January 9, 2018

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The Vermont Legislature needs to do more than just legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by passing legislation that would set up a system to tax and regulate the drug, advocates said Tuesday.

The comments by a tri-partisan group of lawmakers and advocates came a day before the state Senate is expected to give final approval to a bill that would legalize the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and allow people to cultivate small amounts of the drug.

If the bill, scheduled to take effect July 1, is passed Vermont would become the first state in the country to legalize the use of marijuana through a state legislature. Other states that have legalized marijuana have done so through citizen initiatives.

Republican State Sen. Joe Benning said in moving toward a taxed and regulated system for recreational marijuana, the state should have “control over what is being produced from seed to sale.” He said that would mean “the state has control over what quality and quantity is being offered over the counter.”

The state also would maintain control of marijuana education and prevention efforts, he said.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who vetoed a similar version of the marijuana bill last June, has indicated he would sign this version because it addressed his concerns by doing more to protect children from marijuana and enhance highway safety.

Lawmakers changed the proposal last summer to address the governor’s concerns, but there was not enough time to pass it during a one-day veto session in June.

While the version that was passed by the House last week and will be voted on by the Senate Wednesday, defines penalties for possession of amounts greater than one ounce of pot and establishes penalties for people who use marijuana in the presence of minors or in motor vehicles, it does not set up a mechanism by which the state could regulate its use and sale, including taxing those sales.

In a news conference scheduled before it became clear the proposal was on the verge of passage, the advocates said they had no specific legislation to propose, but during the six years the Legislature has been debating marijuana legalization, a number of proposals have been made and those could be revived.

Last month, several health care professionals and others warned against normalizing the use of marijuana. Many Republican lawmakers remain opposed to the bill, but acknowledge they do not have the votes to block its passage.

Current Vermont law decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but people can still be given civil tickets. Under the bill expected to pass Wednesday, possession of amounts below the one ounce threshold is legal, Vermont Law School Professor Robert Sand, a former county prosecutor and long-time advocate for changing drug laws, said in an email after the event.

Benning, who said he was not representing the GOP caucus when he appeared at the Tuesday event, called the bill expected to pass Wednesday “baby steps.”

“This is a cultural change,” Benning said. “And as you can imagine from all of the noise that’s happened in this building people are slowly adjusting to the idea.”

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