May 2016

This year’s journey of the proposals to legalize marijuana in Vermont was a long and torturous one, and I will spare you the details of the dips and bumps along the way. It all boiled down to this: Senate bill S.241 would have legalized possession and set up retail stores for sales. That bill had almost no support in the House, which came up with two versions, one basically keeping the status quo and the other offering some decriminalization. Neither version ever made it to the House floor for a vote. What did finally come before us was S.241 stuck inside H.858.

I support the concept of legalization. Prohibition simply does not work. Approximately 80,000 use marijuana, and under current law, they are all criminals. Across the nation, we overcrowd our jails and waste tax money prosecuting and incarcerating marijuana users. At the same time, I saw major flaws in the proposals offered to us.

On May 3rd I joined most of the other House members in voting 121-28 against S.241, demonstrating how little support the Senate bill had. One major concern was that it would allow major outside entities (think tobacco companies) to gobble up the cultivation and retail licenses S.241 would have established. That is totally contrary to the “home-grown” sentiment we are hearing from the legalization supporters. I also think the Senate bill was too much too soon, jumping from the decriminalization of a small amount in the current law, to selling it in a retail outlet without sufficiently addressing the social, legal and economic impact.

The problem of impaired driving was not adequately addressed by any of the proposals. Recent data from Colorado and Washington indicates drastic increases in marijuana related traffic fatalities. There is currently no clear definition of how much THC in the system causes impairment. There is also no reliable roadside test. A saliva test was proposed, but one study showed it was accurate only 67% of the time. That is not good enough if we want to keep impaired drivers off the road.

I did support the Conquest amendment that would have decriminalized possession of one ounce and two plants and established a study committee to figure out a path to legalization. It too had several flaws, including what to do with the excess amount of marijuana two plants would produce. And while it did decriminalize possession, it did not decriminalize acquisition. Acquiring either the marijuana or the plants would still be a criminal act. That amendment failed, except for the sections establishing a study committee, and we are left with the status quo.

To make it perfectly clear: By a huge majority, the House did not want to legalize marijuana as proposed by the Senate. It still would have been illegal under the Conquest amendment I did support. The consequence for getting caught would have been a ticket and a fine rather than an arrest and jail cell, much the same as if you were caught speeding.

Ask yourself as a taxpayer which makes the most sense: 1) paying the costs of prosecuting and jailing a marijuana smoker or 2) collecting a fine from that smoker?

My preference is a bill that does all of the following:

  • sets a standard for impaired driving (such as the 0.8% for alcohol)
  • provides a reliable roadside test for driving while impaired
  • keeps marijuana out of the hands of minors
  • does not allow the sale of edibles


As in the case of home-brewing, it would allow the home-growing of a small amount of marijuana for personal consumption. If possession became legal, there would also have to be legal means of acquiring the marijuana, perhaps through state-licensed outlets, and those sales would be taxed. The state could also allow licensed growing plots meant for resale, but if it did that, it should structure the licenses and permits so that they could not be gobbled up by large out-of-state companies and put beyond the control of Vermonters. Finally, the bill would use the income generated by licenses, permits and taxes to fund enforcement, an enhanced education effort on the problems of marijuana use and to generate good science on the effects of that use.

This is too big an issue to ignore or to do in a rush. Let’s take the time to put together good legislation that has the necessary protections but also does not hang a criminal record on someone who has a small amount of marijuana in possession.