The judiciary committee of the Vermont Senate voted Friday to advance a bill that would legalize the sale of small amounts of recreational marijuana through licensed retailers and lounges in the state starting Jan. 1, 2018.
The approval of the Senate panel came on a 4-to-1 vote Friday morning, and was a key step in the ongoing marijuana legalization discussions at the Statehouse in Montpelier.
"It has burned me all through these years as a policy that has not just failed, but ridiculously stupid," Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia County, said of the long era of marijuana prohibition in the United States, after he voted in favor of legalizing regulated marijuana sales in Vermont.
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The bill now goes to the finance committee of the Vermont Senate, which will tackle how the legislation would implement taxes on marijuana.
Lawmakers involved in crafting the bill have said tax revenues would be directed to drug prevention efforts, substance abuse treatment, and law enforcement initiatives to combat illegal drug sales and drugged driving.
The bill's current form would allow people 21-years-old and over to legally buy and possess small amounts of marijuana from authorized sellers. Unauthorized selling, or possession of more than an ounce, would still be a criminal offense.
The bill advanced by the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee Friday bars smoking in public, advertising that could appeal to kids, and growing marijuana at home.
"I think this bill is a piece of sane criminal justice policy," said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, the chairman of the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee.
The step disallowing home grows was seen as a disappointment to some supporters of legalization, though they did applaud the legislation’s passage from the judiciary committee.
"It's a product that many adults enjoy for the same reasons that many adults enjoy consuming alcohol," Matt Simon of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana said in a written statement issued after Friday's vote. "While no substance is entirely harmless, the evidence is pretty clear that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. Adults who choose to consume marijuana should be able to purchase it legally and safely from licensed stores that test and label their products. They shouldn't be forced to seek it out in an illegal market where they might be exposed to other more harmful substances."
Legalization has the support of Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, provided an ultimate bill meets several of Shumlin's stated criteria, including that taxes be low enough to reduce black market sales, and that sales of edible forms of marijuana not be initially allowed.
"This debate is about whether we can take a smarter approach towards marijuana, which is already widely available and used by tens of thousands of Vermonters," Shumlin said in a written statement. "Promoting prevention, keeping marijuana out of the hands of kids, getting rid of illegal drug dealers, and doing a better job responding to impaired drivers already on our roads, I believe this legislation is a huge improvement on the failed war on drugs. I look forward to working with the Legislature as they continue to debate this issue."
The topic of marijuana legalization remains divisive in the Vermont Statehouse.
"I think it's a bad message to send to our children; I think it's bad message to send to the people suffering the throes of addiction," said Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor County, the president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate. "It's especially a bad message when we are facing, still, an epidemic of opiate use and addiction, and we're saying, 'Let’s bring a previously-illegal drug and make it legal drug.'"
Thursday, a coalition representing the Vermont Medical Society, the Vermont Academy of Family Physicians, the Vermont Psychiatric Association, the Vermont Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics Vermont Chapter, and the American College of -cians Vermont Chapter cautioned lawmakers about possible side effects from marijuana legalization, including impacts on brain growth of young users, risks of motor vehicle accidents, and worsening of academic success.
Parents Keith Rowe and Ashley Barber of Bennington, Vermont shed tears of joy after the bill cleared this critical first hurdle, though, believing, ultimately, legalization will ease access to therapeutic cannabis extracts they give their 4-year-old daughter, Leah, in hopes of calming her seizures.
Oils like the ones Rowe and Barber want to use to help control the symptoms of Dravet Syndrome, which is a severe and intractable form of epilepsy, are not currently sold at Vermont's medical marijuana dispensaries, the couple said.
"I do have to commend them," Rowe said of the panel's vote Friday.
"It's been a very emotional day for us, but we came here with faith that Vermont would push forward and do the right thing," Barber added.
While Friday's vote was a major first step for legalization, a lot of things still have to happen before legal marijuana sales become a reality. The bill would have to pass the full Senate, and Sen. Campbell predicted it will not necessarily be a “slam dunk” there.
Marijuana legislation would also have to pass the full House, and no one at the Statehouse whom necn talked to Friday seemed confident in predicting the legislation's chances in that body.