Senate Finance Committee passes marijuana legalization bill

This article was updated on 2/15/16 with comments from Senator Ashe.

MONTPELIER >> The Senate Finance Committee on Friday voted 6-1 to pass S.241, legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana in Vermont.

The Senate will hear favorable reports on the bill from both the Finance and Judiciary committees on Tuesday. The bill will head next to the Appropriations Committee. S.241 was first introduced on January 5 by Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) and was co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia). The bill would allow persons over the age of 21 to possess limited amounts of the drug for personal use, and establish a regulatory structure for commercial marijuana.

"The Senate Finance Committee has three priorities on the bill," said Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), chairman of the Finance Committe, "improving public health, outperforming the black market, and proceeding at a cautious pace. A safe, regulated system can remove from the landscape illegal dealers who act like pharmacies peddling opiates and other drugs along with marijuana. We set a tax rate comparable to hard alcohol, which reflects the experience of other states that have a legal structure. And while some legalization proponents would like the legislature to create a completely open, essentially unregulated legal marketplace, Finance has designed a gradual approach to avoid the turbulent implementation we've seen in other states. I think of it as a "first down" strategy as opposed to counting on a 100 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Dick Sears has been a key partner in designing a Vermont-scaled approach."

"I want to thank the Senate Finance Committee for their work and Senator Tim Ashe for his leadership," said Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, in a written statement, "Today's vote builds upon the good work started by Senator (Dick) Sears (D-Bennington) and the Senate Judiciary Committee. I am encouraged by the deliberate approach the Senate is taking on this issue, using the lessons learned from other states to craft a bill that is well thought out. We can take a smarter approach and I look forward to continuing to work to get a bill that ends the failed era of marijuana prohibition in Vermont."

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lisman spoke out against the committee's action, saying, "Once again our Governor and legislature rush to enact public policies without thorough assessments and evaluation of the consequences. Their approach to legislating by experimentation is bad public policy. Enacting legislation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana will encourage broader drug use and threatens to create a host of unintended consequences without delivering any significant benefits. Marijuana legalization will be costly to Vermont taxpayers at a time when every available dollar should be sensibly directed to put Vermont back on a strong fiscal footing. This debate is a misguided distraction from the important work of fixing our budget, controlling property taxes, strengthening our schools and providing Vermonters with more health care choices."

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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