The Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee, which is weighing whether to legalize and regulate the sale of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, is hearing from the public on the issue this week.
A series of five field hearings started Monday afternoon in Bennington, in advance of a committee vote later this month on whether to advance a bill to the full Senate.
"We decided to get out of the Statehouse and hear from people in their own communities," said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County. "So often, the Statehouse is where there are a lot of lobbyists, but we want to hear directly from the people of Vermont."
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The crowd attending the Bennington hearing seemed about evenly split, with half the speakers voicing support for marijuana legalization, and half urging the Senate panel to proceed with caution.
"The current policy of prohibition has failed," argued Ben Simpson, a speaker at the field hearing.
"Slow it down," cautioned Jim Baker, another speaker who registered to address the committee, and who was also a longtime member of law enforcement in Vermont.
State lawmakers are weighing a handful of bills that propose licensing some stores and lounges in Vermont to sell small amounts of pot to people at least 21-years-old, and use tax revenues from those new businesses to fund drug education, treatment, and enforcement efforts.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, has signaled he will only support such legislation if it meets several guidelines. Shumlin said he wants to see measures taken to protect young people from accessing marijuana, wants taxes to be low enough on marijuana to discourage buyers from going instead to the black market, and to bar the sale of edible forms of marijuana until other states figure out how regulating those food products is working.
"It's something the state needs," speaker Mary Beth Bennett said of the opportunity for job creation in Vermont around a new marijuana industry. "A lot of manufacturing jobs are leaving, especially in the southern Vermont portion."
"I want to obey the law, I want to support the rule of law," Theo Talcott, another backer of legalization, told the committee. "Just as we've extended rights to gays and lesbians, good old pot smokers should be allowed to have rights."
Opponents voiced serious concerns, including that teens may get their hands on marijuana, as many do with alcohol today, and that law enforcement may not be prepared to handle new challenges arising from marijuana legalization, including drugged driving.
"This is not something that's going to be easily controlled," warned John Zink, a former undersheriff and opponent of legalization. "I, for the life of me, cannot understand how we can possibly regulate the use of marijuana amongst teenagers."
"For those who struggle with it, addiction to marijuana is a real problem," said Kurt White, the director of ambulatory services at the Brattleboro Retreat, which offers extensive drug addiction treatment services. "I've seen addicted families who buy marijuana before providing for themselves and their children. I've seen teenagers and young people drop out of life because of an increasing obsession to use more and more."
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans a vote January 29 to decide if it will advance a marijuana legalization bill, committee chair Dick Sears said.
After Bennington, the Senate panel headed to Brattleboro and Springfield for more hearings Monday.
A fourth public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday evening at 6:00 pm at the Davis Center at the University of Vermont in Burlington. A fifth hearing is planned for Wednesday evening at 6:00 pm at St. Johnsbury Academy's Stuart Theatre.