Chittenden Sen. David Zuckerman has introduced a bill to legalize marijuana in Vermont. But the legislation isn’t likely to pass anytime soon.
Zuckerman’s 44-page bill calls for the taxation and regulation of marijuana, and would essentially have the state treat cannabis the same way it does alcohol.
“It has the potential for economic development in the state, both from the production and sale of marijuana, but also in tourism attraction, and the various jobs affiliated with both of those scenarios,” Zuckerman says.
Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat, also says the legislation represents a smarter approach to a drug that, according to a recent study by the RAND Corporation, is used by an estimated 80,000 Vermonters.
"It’s a substance that we know most people can use responsibly, a few people can’t,” Zuckerman says.
Opponents of the legislation say the legalization of marijuana will increase usage rates, especially among younger Vermonters, and exacerbate whatever public health threat the drug poses now.
But key officials, Gov. Peter Shumlin among them, have come out in favor of the concept. Proponents say taxation and regulation of cannabis will yield needed revenue for government programs, while undercutting the illicit profits now going to dealers and growers operating in the black market.
Zuckerman concedes that 2014 is not the year for his bill.
“Realistically I think this year we’ve moved on far enough to get it all done,” he says. “It’s a very complicated topic, from economic development, education, agriculture – it covers a lot of topics. So this year we probably are a little late to get it through.”
But he says shifting attitudes in the Statehouse mean passage of a legalization bill is only a matter of time.
“I think amongst my colleagues there’s more of a sense of likely inevitability, and not a sense of if but when,” Zuckerman says.
Zuckerman’s bill would allow for up to 42 legal marijuana establishments across the state, and permit residents of Vermont to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, two mature marijuana plants and seven immature marijuana plants.
Criminal penalties for possession in excess of those amounts would remain on the books. And the bill calls for stricter limits on non-residents, who would be allowed to possess only one-quarter ounce of marijuana.
The bill would also allow for marijuana “lounges,” at which paying customers could purchase and use the drug on site.
Zuckerman says a five-member “Board of Marijuana Control,” housed within the Department of Public Safety, would create rules by which growers and retailers would have to abide. The board would also choose who receives licenses for growing or selling cannabis – Zuckerman wants to require them to give preference to “benefit corporations” with a social and environmental mission. And the medical marijuana dispensaries operating now, under Zuckerman’s plan, would be first in line for consideration for legal pot licenses.
Though security measures in the bill would likely prevent acres-wide outdoor growing operations, Zuckerman says he thinks a legal marijuana program could provide potential economic opportunities to existing Vermont farms.
Zuckerman owns a 155-acre organic vegetable farm in Hinesburg. He says he “briefly thought about” getting into the legal marijuana cultivation game himself if the law passed. But he says he decided it wouldn’t be appropriate to parlay a legislative success on the legalization front into personal profits in his private business.