Marijuana Update 4/22/16

Sunday, April 24th, 2016 | RSS Feed .

As we enter the last weeks of the session, several issues face an uncertain outcome. By the end of the session, all we are really required to pass are balanced budgets for the general fund, education and transportation. The rest is optional. Anything that does not make it through dies, as we say, “on the wall,” meaning the bill number and title pinned on committee bulletin boards are pulled down and discarded. Dead. One of those bills still under consideration, perhaps on life support, is S.241, a bill that would regulate recreational use of marijuana.

Whether you are for or against the legalization of marijuana, the events this year are a fascinating study in the democratic process. “Laws are like sausages,” Otto von Bismarck once said, “it is better not seeing them made.” But I do disagree here. Our founders created different branches of government and then divided the legislature to essentially slow us down a bit. While Colorado, Alaska and Oregon legalized recreational marijuana through ballot initiatives, Vermont is putting this question to the full General Assembly. This allows for constructive debate rather than a popularity contest subject to the powers of marketing to a partially informed electorate.

S.241 grew from the work of a Senate summer study group. The first Senate draft, introduced in January, allowed Vermonters over the age of 21 to grow, use and purchase marijuana as soon as July 2016. Traveling through four Senate committees, countless hours of debate and revision, the bill that emerged in February removed the ability to grow, but did allow for use and sale, other than edibles. It created education and prevention programs as well as a commission to continue to study and gather data. To pay for these, the Senate added an excise tax on cultivation, lab testing and retail establishments. Implementation was moved to January 2018 and passed the Senate on a vote of 17-12. House Judiciary took possession of the bill on March 8th.

Over the next four weeks, the House Judiciary Committee read reports, heard testimony, held joint and public hearings, and reviewed the Senate bill line-by-line. By April, the committee simply could not find enough support to legalize and agreed to start anew. The new bill retained the Senate language for the commission, education and prevention, and training for law enforcement. It added a new provision that would lower DUI blood alcohol levels to 0.05 if THC were also present. Narrowly squeaking out of committee on a vote of 6-5, the new bill continues on its journey through Ways and Means and Appropriations. Here is where it starts to get really interesting.

The next two committees deal with all things money and both have indicated there is no more. The bill before them, however, now had expenses in the form of the commission and new education and prevention requirements, but did not have the revenue sources for legalized cultivation and sales. What to do?
In a new twist, the committee found a revenue source. By bringing back the original Senate language that allowed for home cultivation, the Committee found that by legalizing two plants per household and attaching a $125 fee for that right, they would likely have enough money to cover these programs. The committee voted this out on April 15th on a vote of 7-4. The amused buzz around the Statehouse cafeteria referred to it as “doing it the Vermont Way.”

This week, Appropriations takes possession of the bill and here is where the sausage making may well end. With Massachusetts, Maine and California poised to legalize this year, it is inevitable that Vermont will need to address this issue if not now, then in the near future. Setting up programs for prevention, education and impaired driving may well provide appropriate checks.

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