MONTPELIER — The Scott administration has accepted most of the changes lawmakers have suggested to a marijuana legalization bill vetoed by the governor, but is seeking some additional amendments to gain his support ahead of next week’s veto session.
Kendal Smith, Gov. Phil Scott’s director of policy development and legislative affairs, sent a response late Wednesday to the changes proposed last week by Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown.
“I think it’s workable,” Sears told the Vermont Press Bureau. “The response has generally been somewhat positive. A little confusion about some of the points he makes and trying to make sure we get it all right.”
“I don’t think that we’re so far apart that we can’t reach some kind of agreement,” Sears added. “He seems to have accepted the general direction that we’re going in.”
Sears said he plans to discuss the response with Grad and other lawmakers and will look to schedule a phone call with the administration Friday to continue the negotiation.
Grad could not immediately be reached for comment.
The bill seeks to legalize the possession of up to 1 ounce of dry marijuana and the cultivation of up to two mature marijuana plants and four immature plants beginning on July 1, 2018. The bill also included a commission to craft legislation for lawmakers to consider next year that would create a regulated retail market for marijuana and review various issues related to legalization.
Scott, a Republican, vetoed S.22 on May 24, citing several concerns with the bill. He offered a “path forward,” however, if lawmakers could address his concerns before the June 21 veto session.
Scott said the bill must include strengthening penalties for providing or selling marijuana to minors, as well as stronger penalties for using marijuana in vehicles and in the presence of minors.
Scott also said he is dissatisfied with the commission created in the bill. He wants it to contain a broader range of professionals, including representatives from the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Health, the Department of Taxes and members of the substance abuse prevention and treatment community. The commission’s scope must also include looking an impairment level for operating a vehicle, some kind of impairment testing mechanism, an education and prevention strategy for youth and a plan for continued monitoring and reporting on impacts to public health.
Sears and Grad, the chairs of the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Judiciary Committee, respectively, offered most of the changes Scott is seeking in a compromise bill presented to Scott last week.
Smith, in her response to the lawmakers Wednesday, said the governor accepts language that defines public spaces where marijuana would not be allowed. Scott has also accepted additional language clarifying that law enforcement officers can seize marijuana in certain situations. The compromise language now allows for the seizure of marijuana if someone possesses more than the law allows, possesses the drug where they are not allowed to or consumes it where it is not allowed.
The governor, according to Smith, is happy that the compromise bill clarifies that marijuana cannot be dispensed to minors and that penalties for doing so would be in additional to any other violations. The governor is seeking further clarification, however, about the penalties for a person under 21 that furnishes marijuana to a minor or enables the consumption of marijuana by a minor.
Scott has accepted an increased fine of $200 for a passenger consuming marijuana in a vehicle, but is seeking the inclusion of a definition for “open container” that is contained in Massachusetts law.
“If you are not comfortable with this definition, perhaps it is an item the Commission can examine,” Smith wrote.
Additionally, the governor is seeking to make consuming marijuana in a car with a minor present a misdemeanor criminal offense. The compromise language offered by Sears and Grad makes it a civil violation with a $500 fine. The governor also wants higher penalties for second and third offenses.
Sears said he is concerned that creating a new criminal violation could result in unintended consequences. That issue will be further discussed, he said.
The commission created in the bill has been a significant concern for Scott. The compromise language offered by lawmakers added members to the commission from the Department of Tax, the Department of Health and the Department of Public Safety to the Commission, as requested by Scott. Scott asked for additional changes to the commission in his response.
“[W]e would like you to consider adding the Secretary of Commerce. Realizing that this will create a 14-member Commission, we recommend having one of the members be a non-voting member, who only votes in the event of a tie. The Governor is also willing to have the Committee elect the Chair, it does not have to be his appointee,” Smith wrote.
Meanwhile, Scott is also seeking a fiscal note for the administration to review concerning the cost of enforcement, training, safety and prevention education if marijuana is legalized. The commission should also review third-party liability under a regulated, retail market for marijuana, Smith wrote
Scott reiterated his desire to push back the deadline for the commission’s report on a regulated market. The original bill included a November deadline, while the compromise language from lawmakers set it at Jan. 15, 2018.
“In the interim … we recommend having the Commission introduce legislation next biennium that addresses highway safety and … prevention and education programing, with the accompanying fiscal note and budget appropriation. Once we have taken measurable steps to ensure public safety on our roads, and to protect our children with education and prevention programming, we can feel more comfortable debating a tax and regulate system the following year,” Smith wrote.
Sears said further discussion is also needed regarding the commission’s reporting deadline.
“I need to work with them on that. I would really like, at the very least, an interim report on all of the subjects, not just limiting it to traffic safety and those concerns,” Sears said. “My concern is that we legalize it and we never get to a regulated market and my constituents are left to drive to Massachusetts and then Massachusetts gets all of the benefit.”
Smith, in her written response, expressed optimism that agreement can be reached.
“We are pleased with our conversations to date, and appreciate that you returned a good faith proposal. We are hopeful compromise legislation can move forward during the veto session next week,” she wrote. “As we are just over a week away from reconvening at the State House, we would like to propose setting a goal of reaching resolution by close of business this Friday, June 16th,” she wrote.
An agreement may not be enough to pass the compromise during next week’s veto session, though. Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, has said he is not in favor of suspending rules to expedite passage. Without a rules suspension, the legislative process will take longer than the two days scheduled for the veto session.
Sears said he will be asking Scott, if an agreement is reached, to help convince House Republicans to suspend the rules.
“I think that’s really a House issue and his relationship with his colleagues and House caucus,” he said.
Rebecca Kelley, Scott’s spokeswoman, said the administration is willing to engage with all lawmakers on the issue.
“I know that we’ll be communicating our goals with any legislators that we’re speaking to, on both ides. Ultimately, it will be their decision if they’re going to suspend rules, but I would also stress that that’s not the only opportunity to pass this in the veto session,” she said.
Lawmakers, Kelley said, could extend the veto session if necessary. There may also be parliamentary procedures that legislative leaders could employ to advance the bill, she said.