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Vermont House Committee Passes Marijuana Bill

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After a mixed series of victories, setbacks and complications, the effort to pass marijuana legislation in Vermont took another step forward on Friday.

The House Ways and Means Committee, by a vote of 6-3, passed a bill allowing Vermonters to grow up to two cannabis plants at home. The legislation also removes fines for possessing small amounts of marijuana under the state’s current decriminalization law, effectively legalizing possession of up to an ounce of the drug.

Unlike the bill approved earlier this year by the Senate, however, the House committee-passed bill does not create a system of legal, taxed and regulated marijuana sales.

“Many Vermonters have been very vocal in support of allowing limited home cultivation, and it appears their voices did not fall on deaf ears,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release.

MPP and other advocates pushed successfully to pass the broader legalization bill through the Senate in February, but that legislation didn’t allow for homegrow.

Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), who outlined his support for legalizing and regulating marijuana sales in his State of the State speech in January, praised the latest development, even if the bill as amended doesn’t go as far as he wants.

“There is no question that we can and must improve on the current system of marijuana prohibition that is failing us so miserably,” he said in a press release. “The committee’s action today takes a step towards addressing the nonsensical system that asks the one in eight Vermonters who admit to using marijuana on a monthly basis to buy it from a drug dealer. I believe there is merit as well in the approach taken by the Senate, which goes further towards addressing the many issues that currently exist because of the failed War on Drugs policy of marijuana prohibition. I appreciate the committee’s work on this bill and look forward to working with the Legislature to chart a smarter policy on marijuana.”

Last week a separate House panel, the Judiciary Committee, effectively gutted the Senate-passed bill. Maxine Grad, chair of the committee, initially proposed replacing the plan to legalize, tax and regulate sales with a simple decriminalization of small-scale home cultivation. She also pushed for the state to create a commission to review a possible future legalization of marijuana commerce. But the full committee wasn’t even willing to go that far. Instead, they rejected allowing homegrown marijuana and approved only the idea of a study commission.

The Ways and Means Committee’s action on Friday, however, broadens the bill by adding the cultivation piece back in. Adults over 21 years of age would be able to legally grow marijuana at home after obtaining approval from the state Department of Health. The permits would cost $ 125 and would be good for a period of one year.

Simon, of MPP, said that the committee action “breathes new life” into the effort to pass legalization this year.

The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee and then, if approved there, to the full House floor. It could be further amended at either stage, and advocates hope the provisions allowing for legal and regulated sales will be added back in.

“The House is engaged in a very deliberative process, and we’re hopeful it will do the right thing and end marijuana prohibition in Vermont,” Simon said.

Assuming the House passes a bill that isn’t identical to what the Senate approved, there would be a conference committee made of three members each from the either chamber who would negotiate and iron out the differences to come up with a single proposal to send back to the full bodies for final passage.

In other words, the effort to make Vermont the first state in the U.S. to legalize marijuana by a vote of legislators instead of via a ballot initiative is still very much alive. And they could succeed in legalizing both marijuana commerce and home cultivation, a scenario that wasn’t seen as likely at the beginning of the legislative session.


Photo courtesy of Jiri Hera.

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