Last year, the legislative push to legalize marijuana suffered a rather quick demise in the Vermont House. But this year’s body appears more receptive to the proposal, and a bill introduced this week would legalize possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis.
Rep. Tom Burditt represents the Republican stronghold of West Rutland. And when a proposal to legalize marijuana passed the Senate last year and made it to the House, Burditt was one of its more vocal critics.
Burditt doesn’t think his constituents are any more on board with the legalization concept this year than they were in 2016. So why is he one of the three lead sponsors on a House bill to legalize marijuana?
“Last year was a whole different animal than it was this year,” Burditt says. “We have five new members on the committee this year, the numbers are totally different. Not that we’ve taken any votes, but I’m willing to bet that it will pass, and pass easily, in committee.”
If the legalization train is leaving the station, then Burditt wants to help conduct it. And he says this year’s version of the bill offers a far more responsible path to cannabis reform than the language passed by the Senate in 2016.
Rather than create a legal commercial market for the cultivation and retail sale of marijuana, the House bill simply legalizes possession of up to 2 ounces or less. It would also allow for the cultivation of up to two mature marijuana plants, and seven immature plants.
“The majority of Vermonters do want to see legalization, but really on what some have described as a Vermont scale, to begin with anyway,” says Rep. Chip Conquest, a Democrat from Wells River, another of the bill’s three co-sponsors.
Conquest says the decriminalization bill passed by lawmakers in 2013 has created some shaky legal ground. That law made possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil infraction punishable by a fine.
“And I think the next logical step is to simple acknowledge that there’s some irrationality in that system, right? We’re still asking people to break the law, in a way, in order to do what they’ve been doing,” Conquest says.
Rep. Maxine Grad is the Democratic chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, and the third lead sponsor of the legalization bill. Grad says the proposal is a part of a broader criminal-justice reform effort.
“And it fits into our work of ... looking at the criminal justice system and where are we spending our resources, how are we spending them, and what results we’re getting,” Grad says.
The bill would also lessen criminal penalties for possession of quantities in excess of 2 ounces. And separate legislation would make possession of small amounts of heroin or cocaine a misdemeanor, instead of a felony.
Grad says the decriminalization policy still invites conflict between the public and the police, since law enforcement is supposed to issue tickets for possession.
“It perpetuates that relationship, that tension, in terms of traffic stops, in terms of arrests, other things,” Grad says. “And we really need to enhance our community policing.”
Laura Subin, the director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, calls the House bill an “exciting step forward for Vermont.”
She says she hopes lawmakers will follow it up with a tax-and-regulate model that allows for commercial cultivation and retail sales.
“Because with regulation comes the opportunities for people to know the potency in the product they’re getting, for us to raise revenues for law enforcement, for drug treatment, for education for our young people,” Subin says.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott says he’s not opposed to legalization, but that he has concerns about highway safety and edibles. He said Thursday he’d be willing to consider the House plan.
Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he’s glad to see the House embracing the legalization concept. And he says the Senate will be eager to take up whatever the House ultimately passes.