House Ways and Means amends pot bill, backs legalization

MONTPELIER — The House Ways and Means Committee has voted to approve an amendment to a marijuana bill that would allow for the legal possession of up to 1 ounce and cultivation of up to two marijuana plants.

The amendment, which materialized in the committee Thursday, passed on a 7-4 vote Friday after a few minor changes. It would fundamentally alter the bill advanced by the House Judiciary Committee last week.

The Judiciary Committee’s work stripped out the Senate’s language that legalized marijuana and created a regulatory structure for its retail sale. But support for that never materialized among Judiciary Committee members, so it was amended to create a commission to study the issue. That was barely approved on a 6-5 vote.

The House version of the legislation calls for $150,000 for the commission and about $350,000 for education programs. The Ways and Means Committee amendment legalizes the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, 5 grams of hashish and the cultivation of up to two marijuana plants at each dwelling.

Cultivation would require the purchase of a $125 permit from the state. Sarah Teachout, a fiscal analyst with the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, said she expects about 3,600 permits to be issued.

She estimated that between 50,000 and 70,000 Vermonters regularly use marijuana, and 12 percent of those users would seek a permit. She noted that the estimates come with a “pretty high degree of uncertainty,” however.

Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, said she is strongly opposed to the amendment. She noted that it is being considered as a way to generate money to help fund education programs to warn youth of the drug’s dangers.

“We’re doing this by allowing parents to grow pot in their backyards,” she said. “The word irony is really difficult to define until it’s right in front of you.”

Komline also decried a lack of testimony taken by the committee on its proposal.

“We’re not even hearing from police. We’re not hearing from teachers,” she said.

Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, said he opposed it based on process. Ways and Means is a money committee and should not be tinkering with policy, he said.

“This kind of thing made us nuts in a policy committee, where a policy committee worked on things for a long time … and then it came to a money committee with minimal testimony and made a major policy change,” he said. “The process, I think, is just not the way we ought to be doing things.”

But Rep. Johanna Donovan, D-Burlington, reminded him that the committee supported his efforts to raise the legal smoking age to 21.

“We supported your changing the age of smoking and that was policy,” she said.

“That’s true,” Till replied.

The committee chairwoman, Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, said she worked closely on the proposal with the leaders of the House Judiciary Committee.

“We’re not doing it in isolation. I would feel very uncomfortable if we were,” Ancel said. “If we kill the bill, that’s a pretty big policy statement as well. We’re going to do something that looks like policy no matter what we do here.”

Rep. Jim Condon, D-Colchester, said he was voting in favor of the proposal in committee simply to advance it.

“I’m going to support it out of committee, but I can’t commit to supporting it on the floor,” Condon said. “It’s been an unusual path to this piece of legislation, but we’ll let it keep going and see what happens.”

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, said it is too soon to know if the proposal will see majority support in the House. He has previously said there were not enough votes to support legalization.

“I think it’s an intriguing idea that may be a step in the right direction,” the speaker said. “I think it’s hard to know until something’s on the table. It’s hard to count something that is amorphous and unknown. I think once the proposal is flushed out and put on the table, we’ll have a better sense of whether the body would support it.”

The bill must still make it through the House Appropriations Committee before hitting the House floor. If the full House passes it,

House and Senate negotiators will need to reconcile their differences if a bill is to make it to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s desk.

Shumlin, who supports legalization, praised the Ways and Means Committee amendment Friday.

“There is no question that we can and must improve on the current system of marijuana prohibition that is failing us to miserably,” he said in a statement. “The committee’s action today takes a step toward addressing the nonsensical system that asks the one -in-eight Vermonters who admit to using marijuana on a monthly basis to buy it from a drug dealer.”

neal.goswami @timesargus.com

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