Marijuana Legalization Bills to Be Introduced in Vt. Legislature

The bills would allow for the possession of small amounts of marijuana and pave the way for pot stores

A pair of bills expected to be introduced this week in the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier would legalize small amounts of recreational marijuana, and pave the way for authorized stores and lounges to sell pot.

The Senate bill, to be introduced by Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden County, would permit Vermont residents 21-years-old and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, two mature marijuana plants, seven immature plants, and marijuana produced by those plants in a secure, indoor facility.

An essentially identical bill is expected to be introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, WPTZ-TV reported.

Marijuana retailers and lounges could collect potentially tens of millions of dollars a year in taxes for the state, Zuckerman said. In addition to excise taxes gathered from customers, fees would be set on businesses looking to sell recreational marijuana, according to a summary of the bill supplied to WPTZ-TV.

“If we regulate [marijuana], it would greatly undermine the unregulated market,” Sen. Zuckerman said, describing the impact he believes legalization would have on the black market. “I think a lot of Vermonters are ready for this.”

Zuckerman, citing a study by the Rand Corporation, said approximately 80,000 Vermonters use marijuana at least monthly, spending $125-225 million a year buying marijuana on the illicit market.

Zuckerman’s bill retains criminal penalties for driving while high, and prohibits smoking marijuana in public. It also prohibits marijuana establishments from being near schools, and would allow individual cities and towns to say no to marijuana businesses that want to open up shop. Landlords could also bar tenants from cultivating or keeping pot on their property, Zuckerman noted.

Zuckerman’s proposal would establish a 5-person marijuana control board, whose members would be appointed by the Governor.

Sixty percent of tax revenues would go into Vermont’s general fund, Zuckerman said. Other monies would fund drug risk education campaigns, evidence-based criminal justice programs, and substance abuse treatment services. More money raised through the sale of pot would go to the Department of Public Safety for oversight of marijuana businesses, to communities in which marijuana is sold, and to marijuana researchers at the University of Vermont.

The proposal is not sitting well with the head of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Why the hell are we considering legalizing marijuana?” asked Chief George Merkel of the Vergennes Police Department. “Don't do this.”

Merkel told New England Cable News that safety on state roads would surely slip because he expects legalizing marijuana would mean more impaired drivers. Merkel also said he fears children and teens could end up getting their hands on pot or food containing it. The bill does require child-resistant packaging and bars giving pot to people under 21, but Merkel said Vermonters should remain skeptical.

“For somebody to say, ‘We're going to regulate it to prevent it from getting into kids' hands,’ Really? Do you really think we could do that?” Merkel asked. “Have we done that with alcohol.”

Merkel said heroin and prescription pill addiction continue to be huge challenges for Vermont law enforcement and communities, suggesting the state does not need to appear permissive when it comes to one drug. Because the federal government still defines recreational marijuana as illegal, Merkel also said legalization would raise a host of enforcement issues.

“It’s not a political issue,” Merkel told NECN. “It’s not a Republican, Democrat, or Independent issue. It’s a safety and health issue.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., has repeatedly said he favors marijuana legalization. He once even noted he smoked pot as a young man before he gave it up in his 20s. But Shumlin has also said he wants Vermont to proceed very slowly on the topic, preferring to let other states be pioneers in this area.

Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan was one member of a Vermont delegation that traveled to Colorado this month to study how that state's new marijuana legalization rules are going.

“Frankly, the message I got from Colorado is, "We went too fast,’” Donovan said after returning from the trip last week. “And we need to slow down and have that conversation in Vermont.”

Key players at the Statehouse expect to take their time. Zuckerman acknowledged there are no plans to hold hearings this legislative session on legalizing marijuana. He said he wants to submit the bill this week so that the pieces can be put in place to really make serious progress on the issue starting in January of 2016.

The proposed taxes and rules on marijuana would only apply to recreational pot. Vermont already allows the use of medical marijuana, as long as patients have registry IDs. 

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