Vermont Legislature Poised to Approve Legal Weed in 2018

 In Legalization

Seven Days / BY TERRI HALLENBECK / 

Bettors could prudently put their money on this prediction: Effective July 1, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will be legal for adults in Vermont. After two years of dramatic legislative twists and turns over whether to make marijuana legal, all indications are that this proposal is headed for passage in 2018.

When legislators wrapped up their session in June, the last bit of unfinished business on their agenda was H.511, a bill that would legalize adult possession of marijuana starting in July 2018.

That bill will still be on the House calendar when legislators return to Montpelier in January, an immediate reminder that the long-debated issue has not gone away.

Passage isn’t certain, of course. Opponents will continue to press their case that legal weed will harm young people and increase the number of stoned drivers.

The House — long reluctant to embrace legalization — could send the bill back to committee to mull its options.

Gov. Phil Scott, who vetoed legalization legislation in May, could find a reason to yank his support of this revised version as he awaits recommendations from a commission he appointed to study the topic.

Or a Senate that is eager for full taxed-and-regulated possession and sale of marijuanacould decide to push for that in 2018, jeopardizing Scott’s support in the process.

But it very much looks like both chambers of the legislature and the governor are ready to stick to this year’s tenuous agreement to legalize possession of up to an ounce of pot, as well as cultivation of two mature and four immature plants.

“The House will act on something this [coming] year — I suspect quickly,” said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero).

Her statement is revealing. House members stymied Senate efforts to legalize marijuana before coalescing around the possession-only bill late in this year’s legislative session. But Johnson, who has long been lukewarm at best to legalization, offered no hint of hesitation about the future in an interview last month.

“The majority of the House is ready,” she said.

Scott told Seven Days that if lawmakers adhere to a compromise reached in June, he fully intends to sign the bill next year. Based on Scott’s concerns, lawmakers agreed to stiffen penalties for providing marijuana to youths and for driving with kids in the car while high on marijuana.

Scott pledged that he has no plans to renege on promises to sign such a bill. “It depends on the details, but I said before I would sign something of that nature,” he said.

And the Senate — in which a majority of members would prefer to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana sales — appears willing to settle for legalizing possession in 2018 as a starting point.

“Hopefully, within a year, we would have a tax-and-regulate system,” said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Despite those assurances from key leaders, opponents are not ready to concede defeat.

“I don’t see it as inevitable,” said Kevin Ellis, a Statehouse lobbyist who represents a coalition of opponents called Smart Approaches to Marijuana Vermont. “Someone is going to have to say, ‘This is how much we’re going to spend on education and prevention,’ and that money has to come from somewhere … I don’t know where they’re going to get the money.”

Ellis said opponents, including health professionals and school counselors, will continue to argue that legalization will encourage more young people to consume marijuana, which poses scientifically identified risks to the development of their brains.

SAM-VT won’t be alone in its opposition, as Vermont police agencies and municipal leaders are poised to voice worries about public safety. The Vermont League of Cities & Towns has agreed on a policy position for next year’s debate that says, “Marijuana should be legalized for recreational purposes only after public safety, public health, and local regulatory and budgetary concerns are adequately addressed.”

There’s little doubt, though, that the debate has tilted in favor of legalization.

“It’s more socially acceptable to say you’re for this,” said Eli Harrington, cofounder of Heady Vermont, a legalization advocacy organization. “The tenor of the conversation has become more open.”

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