MORGAN TRUE, VTDigger.org

Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, has introduced a bill this year to legalize, tax and regulate the production, sale and recreational use of marijuana in Vermont.

But Zuckerman says the timing isn’t right for full legalization this year - though that is his ultimate goal.

"I think this is a building year, more than a likely passage year," Zuckerman said.

Last year the Legislature decriminalized the possession of small amounts of pot. The bill, which went into effect in July, replaced criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana with a civil fine, similar to a traffic ticket.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has said legalization is not a priority this year. The governor, however, is closely watching the regulation and taxation of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, according to the governor’s spokesman Scott Coriell.

Legal marijuana sales for recreational use began Jan. 1 in Colorado and the state expects $578 million in annual sales to generate $67 million in tax revenue, according to Bloomberg News. Sales in Washington are expected to begin later this year.

Matt Simon with the Marijuana Policy Project said his organization won’t push legalization this year. Instead, they will focus on grassroots organizing, studying implementation elsewhere and trying to build a consensus about the path to legalization.

"We want to pass (tax-and-regulate) in 2015, and I don’t see any reason why Vermont wouldn’t be one of the first states to do this through the Legislature," Simon said.

The Marijuana Policy Project spent $24,000 lobbying state lawmakers last year, and the nonprofit group has been a staunch financial supporter of the governor’s last two election campaigns.

Zuckerman’s bill would create a regulatory framework for the wholesale and retailing of marijuana under the authority of the Liquor Control Board, and impose a $50 per ounce excise tax on all sales. It would allow people age 21 or older to possess two ounces or three plants, while maintaining criminal penalties for quantities in excess of that limit or marijuana sold outside the regulatory system. The penalties for underage possession would be the same as those for alcohol.

The bill was drafted previously and filed at the last minute, Zuckerman said, and he acknowledged it isn’t perfect. If it were to be taken up this session, the details could be ironed out through the legislative process, he added. The same bill in the House was introduced last session, though it’s unlikely to see the floor.

"If the real issue of criminal activity has to do with the black market trade and dealing of (marijuana), then it actually makes logical sense to remove that incentive," Zuckerman said.

The main legislative focus for Vermont marijuana advocates in 2014 will be eliminating the 1,000-person cap on the number of patients who can get marijuana through a dispensary, Simon said.

With close to 900 medical marijuana patients, nearly 500 of whom rely on dispensaries, the state could hit that ceiling this year, especially with a fourth dispensary set to come online in Brattleboro, according to Simon.