Montpelier >> Hours before the curtains closed on the 2016 legislative session, key House and Senate lawmakers agreed to continue conversing about pot.
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, and Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, jointly wrote a letter stating that the question of marijuana legalization will be a central focus of a panel that convenes periodically when the Legislature isn't in session.
The Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee plans to hold six hearings on regulation and legalization of marijuana through the summer and fall.
The letter, requesting authorization for the hearings from Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell and House Speaker Shap Smith, says the hearings will be focused on developing a "comprehensive approach to marijuana."
"These issues are clearly important to Vermonters, and we would like to continue the conversation in hopes of developing a modern approach to marijuana policy that reflects the values, culture and scale of Vermont," the lawmakers wrote.
The committee will consider youth education and prevention, possession for adults age 21 or older, and a regulatory system.
The letter is an anticlimactic ending for an issue that took up months of committee time in both legislative chambers during the 2016 session.
The Senate approved a bill to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana in February, but the issue got a tepid response in the House. That bill, S.241, atrophied as it worked through House committees, eventually stalling out in Appropriations.
But, at the Senate's prodding, the House held a floor vote on the issue early last week. Representatives solidly defeated the Senate proposal to create a regulatory system by 2018, as well as a different model that would have legalized licensed growth of two plants at home. Instead the House opted for a stripped-down bill that included enhanced education efforts and an advisory commission. Ultimately, even that legislation failed.
While the end of the legislative biennium marks the end of the line for S.241, the letter from the two legislators indicates the conversation will continue going forward.
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette, who also heads the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, hailed the lack of pot legislation this year.
"Quite honestly, I was pleased with where things ended up," Doucette said Tuesday. The failure of efforts to further decriminalize marijuana and to legalize and regulate it "is a victory for the state of Vermont, not just for law enforcement," he said.
Doucette testified in front of lawmakers many times during the session against legalization. The Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police "adamantly" opposes legalizing pot — a position shared by several other law enforcement agencies, many of which cited public safety concerns, particularly around impaired driving.
Doucette said he sees other problems in Vermont as more pressing than the question of legalizing marijuana. Pushing to loosen restrictions on pot while in the middle of an opiate addiction crisis is an awkward juxtaposition, he said.
"I think that we need to really focus on some of the issues that law enforcement faces, some of the issues that the state faces," Doucette said.
Matt Simon, of the Marijuana Policy Project, said he is not too disappointed by the House's defeat of the Senate legalization proposal.
"I'm not one to cry over spilled legislation," Simon said.
The advocacy group did have a victory in the adoption of policies that expand access to medical marijuana, he said. The Legislature added people with chronic pain to the list of those eligible to get marijuana through the medical dispensaries.
"I think the most productive thing that could happen is for Sen. Sears, Rep. Grad and others to get together and try to find common ground and go through the bill point by point," Simon said.
Simon said his group will continue to be engaged in the conversation going forward. He'll also be creating a voting guide ahead of the election to help inform Vermonters about where candidates stand on the issues.
Debby Haskins, of the volunteer advocacy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM-VT, hopes that as lawmakers continue to discuss marijuana policy, they will bring in scientific research and draw on expertise.
The debate during the legislative session focused on two models for changing marijuana policy — a regulated market and homegrown marijuana. But, Haskins said, "there's other options available to us."
SAM-VT sees the biggest failing in Vermont's current system as a lack of resources dedicated to educating the public and young Vermonters on the risks of using marijuana and to preventing use.
Haskins urged legislators to take their time as they review marijuana policy.
"This is a very complex issue," Haskins said Tuesday. "It's not 'legalize or not legalize.'"