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Vermont Close to Legalizing Marijuana

If the idea of legalizing marijuana in Vermont ever needs to go to a public ballot, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has promised to support the proposal. But he’ll probably never have to feel that burn.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) is on the side of those working to end the “prohibition” of marijuana, as he and Sanders put it, through the legislative process.

The Vermont Senate has approved S. 241, legislation that would put joints to the lips of law-abiding citizens.

Vermont K-9 units are also getting ready for a new day to dawn that is much more friendly to pot smokers. The Times Argus reported Vermont Police Academy K-9 classes are no longer teaching the animals to sniff out marijuana.

But the Vermont House could be a major buzzkill.

S. 241 would erase criminal penalties for adults who possess up to an ounce of marijuana. Growers and retailers who are licensed by the state could begin operations. And the Vermont treasury would get its taste from a 25 percent excise tax on all marijuana sales.

Rand Corporation estimated in a study released during Senate debate in January that the state could pull in $20 million to $75 million a year in new taxes if Vermont gets into the marijuana regulation business.

Legalizing home cultivation of pot is not included in the bill, nor is the sale of edible marijuana products. But S. 241 would create a commission to study those concepts.

Gov. Shumlin released a statement after the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill in which he called the legislation “a smarter policy towards marijuana in Vermont.”

“This bill will allow Vermont to undercut the black market and get rid of illegal drug dealers, focus on prevention and treatment, and do a better job than we do currently of keeping marijuana out of the hands of children and addressing drugged drivers who are already on Vermont’s roads,” Shumlin said.

After it had cleared the Senate, Shumlin promised to sign the legislation if it was approved by the House.

“The War on Drugs policy of marijuana prohibition has failed. We can and should take a smarter approach,” Shumlin said. “I look forward to continuing to work with the Legislature as this bill moves forward.”

More than a dozen local clergy and faith leaders in Vermont are on board with the idea of ending the marijuana front in the war on drugs.

They signed a letter encouraging support for S. 241. Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell and two former attorneys general, Jerome Diamond and Kimberly Cheney, also sent the General Assembly a letter voicing their endorsements of the legislation.

Vermont Public Radio released a poll just before the Senate vote that showed 55 percent of Vermonters supported S. 241. Only 32 percent opposed it.

Marijuana Policy Project New England Political Director Matt Simon is optimistic.

“Like most Vermonters, most members of the Senate recognize that prohibition is a failed policy. They voted to regulate marijuana because it will make our communities safer,” Simon said.

“We are confident that House members who take an objective look at the evidence will arrive at the same conclusion as their colleagues in the Senate.”

He could be wrong. The legislation had not yet been scheduled for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee when Democrats and Republicans started questioning its wisdom.

“It’s got a pretty steep climb in the House, to tell you the truth,” House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D) told the Valley News. “I’m not convinced we are ready to move forward with this legislation.”

She would rather see a new marijuana law devoted to keeping pot out of the hands of children.

Rep. Donna Sweeney (D) is another House member who has yet to be convinced, especially with New England in the grips of an opioid addiction epidemic.

That was also a concern to Sen. John Campbell (D), who voted against the legislation.

“Why are we saying ‘let’s legalize another drug’ when we have people who are in the grips of addiction?” Campbell said during the Senate debate.

While the legislation would relieve the paranoia of jail time for an estimated 80,000 Vermonters who buy, grow and smoke marijuana now, and could take as much as $175 million away from drug dealers, some Vermont lawmakers worried about the unintended consequences of legalization.

Children in Vermont already have enough stress in their lives without being enticed by legal marijuana sales, said Rep. Job Tate (R). He is also concerned about state money that would have to be spent to enforce and regulate the new law.

Police in other New England states are worried about their stress levels, too, if marijuana is legalized.

“I think it’s going to be a nightmare,” Cambridge-Greenwich Police Chief George Bell told WGRB-TV in Albany, N.Y. The outer edge of his jurisdiction lies close to the Vermont border.

“I don’t think anybody in law enforcement at this point knows how they’re going to deal with it,” Bell said, “if it does go in Vermont like this.”