Legislative Report 4/18/2016 - Highs and Lows of Marijuana Legislation

Every session seems to have its own highly controversial issue – end of life, vaccines, gun control.  This year it's marijuana legalization. The Vermont Senate passed S.241 in March on a vote of 17-12. Under this measure the state would regulate cannabis from seed to sale and legalize its use by adults. The Health Department would establish prevention and education programs, and the Department of Public Safety would regulate licensed marijuana businesses. Retail sales would be taxed at 25% and proceeds would fund substance abuse prevention, education, treatment and law enforcement. Selling or giving marijuana to and possession and use of marijuana by anyone under age 21 would be prohibited as would driving under the influence of marijuana. Unlicensed growing, selling and possession of more than one ounce of marijuana would be prohibited and current penalties would still apply.

After leaving the Senate, S.241 was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. After four weeks of testimony and discussion, including joint hearings with the Government Operations Committee and the Human Services Committee and a two-hour public hearing in the well of the House, the Judiciary Committee voted out a rewritten S.241 on April 8. With this amendment the Judiciary Committee recognizes that Vermont must address public health and safety issues from marijuana use that currently confront the state. It stops short of legalization, but allows the state to prepare for the eventuality that legal marijuana use will come to our region, while also addressing current concerns. It retains certain provisions of the Senate bill, including an education and prevention program including drugged driving prevention, creating a crime for certain dangerous chemical extraction processes, prohibiting the consumption or possession of marijuana in a motor vehicle, requiring additional training for law enforcement, and establishing a workforce study committee. Last week the House Ways and Means Committee took the Judiciary version and restored the legalization of up to one ounce of marijuana and cultivation of up to two plants with a license from the Health Department. They also stripped appropriations for the Department of Public Safety for enforcement and lab testing while retaining those requirements.
According to the Rand Corporation report commissioned by the Legislature, 80,000 Vermonters currently use marijuana. With the legalization issue gaining momentum throughout the country, it is likely that Vermont will also do so at some point. If we do, we must do it carefully and with our eyes wide open. Proponents point to increased revenue from taxation, displacing the current black market, and the benign effects of marijuana compared to alcohol consumption. However, data out of Colorado indicates that there was an 8% increase in the number of 12 to 17 year olds using marijuana in the first year of legalization, and a 32% increase in marijuana-related traffic fatalities during the first year. Moreover, the revenues from taxing marijuana sales will likely be significantly diminished by the costs of regulation and enforcement. If we are concerned with the safety and welfare of the general population, we need more time to assess the long term effects of legalization. We should also have at least as much control over sales as we have over alcohol. Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and the District of Columbia are the laboratories of this experiment. Before potentially endangering our youth further by this addictive substance or experiencing increased road fatalities resulting from an influx of out-of-state drivers or Vermonters driving under the influence, waiting for a careful assessment of the results from those jurisdictions before we become a laboratory ourselves may be a more prudent path.
I always welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).