Marijuana Legalization Bill Hits A Wall In Montpelier

Mar 28, 2017

A highly anticipated vote on a bill that would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana was postponed indefinitely Tuesday when House leadership pulled the proposal from the floor, after it became apparent that the legislation did not have enough votes to pass.

The move signals severe troubles for the legalization legislation, but it isn’t dead just yet. The bill now heads to the House Committee on Human Services, where it will sit until proponents muster the 76 votes they need to pass it on House floor.

The procedural maneuver demonstrates the ambivalence that legislators are feeling over the legalization issue, and competing testimony from advocates on both sides has made it a tough vote for many lawmakers.

Corey Kupiec is one of those advocates. He’s concerned enough about the future of marijuana legalization in Vermont that he drove more than two hours from his home in southern Vermont to watch the floor debate Tuesday.

Kupiec is the Vermont representative of New England Veterans Alliance.

“We are a nonprofit that focuses on raising education and access to veterans to safe, clean, healthy cannabis,” Kupiec says.

Kupiec spent about six years in the U.S. Army, a hitch that included combat duty in Iraq.

"I'm a father, I'm a businessman, I'm an advocate, I'm a student. And I pretty much owe it all to cannabis." — U.S. Army veteran Corey Kupiec

“I was basically a combat tow truck driver,” Kupiec says. “I did a lot of crazy stuff, and it’s stuff that haunts me every day.”

Kupiec says the transition to civilian life can be a rough one for combat vets like him. And he says lawmakers can help more veterans survive it by legalizing marijuana.

“I know guys who crochet. And they’re happy because they can smoke a joint and crochet, and you wouldn’t expect that guy was a cold-blooded killer. He can smoke a joint and he’s happy, and he can be a good person,” Kupiec says. “I’m a father, I’m a businessman, I’m an advocate, I’m a student. And I pretty much owe it all to cannabis.”

It’s a compelling testimonial. But so is the one from Dr. Jill Rinehart, a primary care pediatrician at Hagan, Rinehart and Connolly Pediatrics in Burlington.

Rinehart is also the president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She wasn’t in the Statehouse for the debate Tuesday. But Rinhart has testified numerous times before lawmakers.

“I have learned a lot about marijuana and its potential effect on adolescents and children specifically in Vermont, and that sort of drew me into the dialogue,” Rinehart says.

Rinehart says the impact of marijuana use on teenagers and young adults can be profound.

“It de-motivates young people, it keeps them apart from their peers in doing types of activities that we know helps kids to be successful,” Rinehart says.

There is no conclusive statistical evidence to indicate that legalization increases usage rates among kids in states with more permissive cannabis laws. But Rinehart says data does show that perception of the risk posed by cannabis is going down among Vermont children.

"[Marijuana] de-motivates young people, it keeps them apart from their peers in doing types of activities that we know helps kids to be successful." — Dr. Jill Rinehart

She says legalization could exacerbate that trend.

“And it’s that kind of normalization to families who really want to do the best thing for their children and their family, and then they end up with this outcome that is so devastating,” Rinehart says.

Lawmakers are also hearing from advocates such as Eli Harrington, an outspoken proponent of legalization, and the co-founder of a group called Heady Vermont.

“Our approach was, we wanted to start sort of a local information hub, to really connect with Vermonters, help elevate them by giving them more accurate, in-depth information [about legalization],” Harrington says.

Harrington was in the Statehouse Tuesday, in advance of what looked to be a close vote on the legalization bill. Harrington says it’s clear where Vermonters stand on the issue.

“I think a lot of Vermonters do view this as their fundamental right, and treat it as such, right?” says Harrington, noting that cannabis usage rates in Vermont are among the highest in the nation. “And they shouldn’t need to worry about being criminals, and facing legal repercussions.”

Harrington, 30, says legalization is especially popular among younger Vermonters. A Pew Research Center survey conducted last summer showed that 71 percent of 18- to 35-year-olds nationwide support cannabis legalization.

“We’ve traveled. We’ve seen cafes in Amsterdam. We’ve seen businesses in Colorado, we’ve seen tax money building schools in other states,” Harrington says. “We’ve seen reports coming out that the sky has not fallen. And I think for a lot of folks in Vermont, it’s sort of a no-brainer.”

And then there are voices like Elizabeth Novotny’s, the lobbyist for the Vermont State Police, who brings lawmakers yet another perspective to contend with.

Novotny says police aren’t outright opposed to legalization.

“They recognize it is not a question of if we legalize but when we legalize,” Novotny says.

And Novotny says now is not the time. She says lawmakers need a strong educational campaign geared toward children, and that the campaign needs to be in place before lawmakers go ahead with legalization.

Novotny says Vermont also needs additional highway safety measures, such as more drug-recognition experts, before the drug is legal.

“And we don’t have a roadside test, so there’s a lot we’re missing in terms of public safety on the highways that we have to address,” Novotny says.

Even if the bill resurfaces from the House Committee on Human Services, and survives a vote on the House floor, prospects for passage are still murky. That’s because Republican Gov. Phil Scott says he won’t support legalization until there’s a roadside test to measure marijuana intoxication levels.

Several weeks ago, Scott asked lawmakers to pass a strong marijuana driver impairment bill before considering a plan to legalize pot. The House advanced that impairment bill Tuesday, but Scott says it's not tough enough.

The legislation makes it illegal to smoke marijuana while driving a car, and it relies on drug recognition experts to determine if a driver is impaired — but there is no specific test to measure marijuana impairment.

Colchester Rep. Pat Brennan, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, says that marijuana is very different from alcohol, and it's difficult to determine levels of impairment.

“This is where the science of the whole thing comes in,” Brennan says. “We've heard testimony that the presence alone isn't enough."

Scott says lawmakers should slow down their legalization efforts until this issue is dealt with.

“We have some time to work on this," Scott says. "We don't have to legalize at this point in time."