Gov. Phil Scott says he won't support legislation legalizing marijuana in Vermont unless the bill contains strong provisions to allow law enforcement officials to determine if a person is driving while impaired.
The bill being considered by the House Judiciary Committee is quite different from the plan that passed the Senate last year.
The Senate version created a state regulatory system to sell marijuana at retail stores, and it also taxed the sale of these products. It's an approach taken by the state of Colorado.
In contrast, the House bill simply legalizes the possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana, and it allows individuals to grow several plants. This is the scaled-back legalization approved by voters in Washington, D.C.
Scott says he's willing to look at any bill that reaches his desk. But he's making it very clear that the plan must include ways for police to test if a person is driving under the influence of marijuana.
"Certainly it's still problematic from the standpoint of public safety,” says Scott. “I want to make sure that we address those concerns I talked about on the campaign trail in terms of impairment on our highways."
The governor says current testing methods are expensive and don't provide clear evidence of when a driver actually used marijuana, because pot can remain in a person's system for many days.
"The per test [cost] is hundreds and hundreds of dollars, and so I'm not sure that tells us a whole lot either — the level of impairment and what that really means,” said the governor.
Scott says Vermont should wait and see how other states deal with this issue.
"Let's let them do the leg work, let's let them spend the money in terms of trying to accomplish our goal of making sure that we're safe on our highways and that our kids are protected,” said Scott.
Scott says he would also prefer that lawmakers spend their time on "more important" issues this session.
"This isn't the opportune time to take this up,” said Scott. “I believe that we should focusing on growing the economy, making Vermont more affordable, taking care of the most vulnerable. And I'm not so sure that this rises to the level that it should be taking up a lot of our time in the Legislature."
Wells River Rep. Chip Conquest is a member of the House Judiciary committee and a co-sponsor of the House bill.
"I agree with the governor that impairment on our roadways is a serious issue, but it's a serious issue now, regardless of whether we pass this bill or not," Conquest says.
Conquest notes that the House Transportation committee is looking at a bill that creates a new level of driving impairment.
Currently, a driver is considered to be legally impaired if they have a blood alcohol level of .08 or above. The new proposal would lower the level to .05 if there was also any trace of marijuana in the driver's system.
Conquest says the bills can certainly be considered as separate pieces of legislation.
"I don't see that there's a connection, that it's essential that we pass one bill before we pass the other,” said Conquest. “But as I say, the committee upstairs is looking at it and we may get a chance to look at that bill this year."
After the House strongly rejected the Senate approach last session, Senate leaders say they are going to wait and see if the House passes a bill this year before the Senate spends much time on this issue.