Lawmakers are getting ready to debate and vote on the highly controversial issue of marijuana possession right at the start of the new session.
On Wednesday afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee gave its approval to a bill that legalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and the full House is now expected to debate this issue on Thursday.
Rep. Maxine Grad, chairwoman of the House Committee on Judiciary, says she's eager to pass this bill right at the start of the session.
"We've done this a number of times," Grad said. "We ran out of time during the veto session ... and I would like to vote on it, get it to the governor's desk and work on the many other important issues that we have."
The legislation is basically the compromise that House and Senate Democratic leaders reached with Gov. Phil Scott last June. The proposal would allow individuals to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and a person could also grow two mature plants.
It did not receive final approval back in June though because House Republicans used some parliamentary rules to block consideration of the bill in the shortened veto session.
Grad says passage of the bill should help lawmakers decide if they want to support a full state-regulated model, like the approach used in Colorado, where marijuana is sold in retail stores and is taxed.
"I think it'll give us the opportunity to see what happens when marijuana is legal," Grad said. "We can collect data, we can look at teen usage, we can change the questions on our youth risk survey — and really get an understanding so that if we were to go to a regulated system, we could do it in the best and safest way possible."
House Minority Leader Don Turner strongly opposes the bill. He wants to wait to see how legalization unfolds in Massachusetts and Maine — two states that legalized pot through a voter referendum process.
"I hope that it's not a done deal — it sort of looks that way. We're gonna do our best to continue to bring up to Vermonters that we don't need to do this now,” said Turner. “Other states are doing it, let them be the ... test cases and we'll continue to look at it and evaluate it and do it right in the future."
If the House passes this bill on Thursday, it's likely that it will come before the Senate for a vote early next week.