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Debate Swirls As Committee Moves Recreational Marijuana Bill Forward

Picture of marijuana plant
US Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee recently voted to approve a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana in the state. The idea is so controversial that even members of the same party are divided over the issue.
The Judiciary Committee moved Senate Bill S.241 — which would legalize and regulate possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by those are 21 or older — forward for consideration in other committees.  The product would be grown in licensed cultivation areas, tested and sold in special stores.  Home growing would remain illegal as would smoking pot in public or driving under its influence.

Judiciary Committee vice-chair Republican Senator Joe Benning co-sponsored of one of the original bills that morphed into the measure that moved out of committee.  He calls its approval on a 4-1 vote significant.   “The chair of the committee who has traditionally been opposed has essentially taken the request from the governor and made it his own.  What you have now in the components of the bill that passed the committee are essentially the components that he is now driving. And so for him to change his own position on this language and for him to come around and treat this as a sane criminal justice policy is very significant.”

The bill must move through more committees and Benning is somewhat optimistic it will make it to the floor for a vote.    “My overall intent through this discussion has been to change how we view this particular substance  and to consider whether or not prohibition is a wise policy. This bill does not go as far as I would like it to.  It goes far beyond what others want it to.  But it is a change in direction.”

While Benning, a Republican leader in the Senate, is a strong proponent, the Republican caucus in the House opposes the bill. They are led by House Minority Leader Don Turner.   “There’s some very genuine concerns on all sides of the aisle. And when the governor brought up the marijuana issue it was not very well received in the House. There is some real concern and I am hopeful that my colleagues in the House will not do anything just because the governor is leaving office and wants to pass this.  I’m hoping that the House does the due diligence where it will move at a pace that’s necessary for people to understand all the ramifications.”

Senator Benning says his bill addresses youth access to marijuana, restricts sales, controls potency and develops revenues for law enforcement and treatment programs.   “The old school, if you will, is looking at this from the perspective of ‘This is just a horrible idea.’  The new school of thought is trying to understand people are using it now.  Can we channel adult usage into benefitting us in other ways?”

Minority Leader Turner’s full-time job outside the statehouse is as an EMT.  He will adamantly oppose any legalization of recreational marijuana.   “I will not support it.  I’m the fire and rescue chief in our community. I work very closely with law enforcement.  We face this huge opiate addiction problem that the governor keeps talking about. It’s driving spending in our budget.  And yet we want to legalize another drug so that we can capture some of the revenues to help offset the expense on the other drug addiction problem. It sends the wrong message.  I will be doing everything I can to oppose this.”

The Senate Finance Committee is reviewing the measure to determine how recreational marijuana could be taxed.  It will then move to the Committee on Appropriations.

There is not yet a companion bill in the House.  Governor Peter Shumlin has voiced support for legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

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