Frustrated by inaction, Senate moving forward on marijuana bill

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MONTPELIER — As a marijuana legalization bill idles in a House committee, senators are planning to force the issue forward themselves.

A proposal to create a tax-and-regulate legal marijuana system is poised to come up for a vote Friday in the Senate.

The language, which will be offered as an amendment on a House-passed bill related to drug possession penalties, is one of two last-minute measures senators are planning to put forward after legalization measures stalled in the House.

The other amendment would set up a committee to make recommendations about legalization.

After twice passing marijuana legalization last year only to see it die in the House, Senate leaders said any move on the issue this year would need to start on the House side.

The House Judiciary Committee did move forward on the issue, passing H.170, a bill that would have legalized adult possession of limited amounts of marijuana without creating a regulated or taxed system.

It was expected to come up for a vote on the House floor in March, but at the last minute was sidelined to another committee for further study amid uncertainty whether there were enough votes for it to pass.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he and others in the Senate had "fully counted" on the passage of H.170 in the House. He and several senators met informally to discuss how they might like to amend the House bill.

"We've been trying to figure out now what do we do, cause it ain't getting to us," Sears said Wednesday.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, will resurrect a proposal the Senate passed last year to create a tax-and-regulate marijuana system. White's amendment draws heavily on the text of S.241 from last year but makes some changes. The new version would allow Vermonters to grow small amounts of marijuana at home and would put some responsibility for regulation with the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

White plans to offer the amendment to H.167, a bill the House passed last month that would direct legislative counsel to study and make recommendations on changing penalties for drug possession. The Senate Judiciary Committee substantially revised the proposal to study pretrial services and access to drug treatment.

White does not expect her amendment or H.170 to pass the House and become law this year.

"There's no way that either bill is going to make it to the finish line this year," she said.

However, she would like to have a proposal that includes a regulated market put forward before the session ends, providing a foundation for further discussions over the summer and when the Legislature returns for the second half of the biennium.

White has concerns about the model the House Judiciary Committee proposed. She feels it would encourage black market activity rather than minimize it. With Massachusetts and Maine on track to implement legal sales, the model would also encourage Vermonters to go out of state, she believes. In her southern Vermont district, it may be a short drive across the border to a marijuana dispensary, she said.

"Maybe Massachusetts will have one right there on (Interstate) 91," she said.

Sears will put forward the other amendment to create a commission to study and make recommendations on implementing marijuana legalization.

"Everybody, including the governor, has said (legalization is) inevitable, someday it's going to happen. So let's be prepared when that happens," Sears said.

He is not certain which bill he will propose to attach it to yet, but it will likely come up on the Senate floor in the near future.

It's not the first panel convened to study the issue. After the legalization bill failed last year, House and Senate leaders agreed to make marijuana the subject of six off-session joint legislative committee meetings through the summer and fall.

Sears argues this committee would be different because it would include members of the public and appointees of the governor in addition to legislators.

Sears is "hopeful" his amendment would find support in the House and pass this year.

"They seem to like studying stuff. This would be an opportunity to study it," Sears said.

The future of marijuana legalization in the House remains uncertain. House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said Tuesday that the House Democrats do not have a plan for H.170 in the near future.

"We are still working as a caucus on what we're going to do as next step on the legalization of marijuana bill," Krowinski said.

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