MONTPELIER >> The clock is ticking on a Senate committee considering whether lawmakers should move ahead with a bill that would legalize and regulate marijuana in Vermont.
If the Judiciary Committee decides to move forward with legalization, the five-member panel will need to approve a bill by Jan. 29, according to its chairman. The committee is considering two pieces of legislation: S.95, introduced last session by Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, and S.241, from Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham.
As the race against the clock begins, a cacophony of opposing voices is swelling under the golden dome.
Two representatives from Vermont law enforcement spoke before the committee Tuesday, expressing strong opposition to proposals to create a regulated market for marijuana in the state.
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette, head of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, told the Senate committee that his colleagues around Vermont are adamantly opposed to the legalization of marijuana.
"We want to make sure that we are able to keep our communities safe, and at this point in time I don't see where legalizing marijuana is going to make our communities safe," Doucette said.
He raised concerns about roadside enforcement of prohibitions on driving while impaired by marijuana.
"Whether you're a state trooper, a municipal officer, county sheriff, we are not prepared to deal with the number of people that we anticipate will drive under the influence of marijuana," Doucette said.
Already, he said, there is a shortage of officers trained in processing people who are accused of driving under the influence. In his area, he said, it can be difficult to access drug enforcement experts when they are needed.
Rutland County Sheriff Steve Benard also strongly opposed the bill. Benard urged lawmakers to "take this very, very, very slow."
Benard and Doucette were both part of a group that traveled to Colorado in February to research how pot legalization has played out there, and they cited conversations they had there with law enforcement, members of the business community and residents.
Meanwhile, at a news conference Tuesday, the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana made a pitch for moving ahead with legislation this year.
The group, comprising dozens of individuals and groups including the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, former Gov. Madeleine Kunin and environmentalist Bill McKibben, took a big picture approach to the issue.
"We are not here to argue that marijuana is a harmless substance, and we are not here to claim that marijuana tax revenue is somehow going to solve all of Vermont's problems," said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.
"Instead we're here to make a case that any harms associated with marijuana consumption would best be managed in a regulated environment," Simon said, adding that tax revenues could be put toward improving drug education, treatment and enforcement.
The coalition recently picked up the endorsement of a former Vermont attorney general. Kimberly Cheney, who served as the state's top prosecutor from 1973 to 1975, backed the push for regulation in a paid ad that began running Tuesday on VTDigger.
Cheney said he disagreed with the stance taken by the Vermont sheriffs and police chiefs.
"I admire police. I worked with them closely. They've got an impossible job to do," Cheney said. "I don't think continuing another impossible job is a good way to go."
The crux of the argument for Cheney is that, in his view, prohibition of marijuana has not worked. So, he said, it's time to try something different.
"This is not a police problem," Cheney said. "It's essentially a public health problem."
For many legislators, a key element of any law involving legalizing marijuana would be that it must reduce the illicit drug market in the state.
"Whether you're a proponent or an opponent of the use of marijuana at all, the black market itself should be the scariest scenario," said Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden.
Ashe questioned how Doucette framed a statistic that since marijuana legalization in Colorado, some 40 percent of sales are still from the black market.
"I would think that that would be viewed as greatly superior to 100 percent black market," Ashe said.
Ashe supports legalization but said he has concerns about some factors, including drugged driving and the ability to reduce black market sales. In his view, it is also important to reduce marijuana use among teens, which, he said, is currently widespread.
"We can't say that it would do a worse job," Ashe said. "It could not do a worse job."
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Doucette laid out some "compelling" points about how legalization would affect law enforcement.
Sears said he agrees with the conditions Gov. Peter Shumlin outlined for any marijuana bill, noting that drugged driving is a concern and emphasizing his desire to reduce reliance on the black market.
Sears said the five public hearings that lawmakers will be holding around the state are critical for him in forming opinions about the need for the bill.
Meanwhile, Sears said it is a "pretty ambitious" goal for the committee to try to resolve the major outstanding questions by the end of the month. Asked if his committee would get through the workload, the senator gave a shrug.
"I don't know," he said. "I honestly don't know."