Vermont lawmakers push to expand marijuana legalization

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A surprise twist in the Statehouse Thursday afternoon has the issue of marijuana legalization suddenly on the front burner in Montpelier again.

A tri-partisan coalition of House lawmakers is now pushing for legislation that would create an above-board market for commercial cannabis sales.

Earlier this year, lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott passed a law that will, starting July 1, legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and the cultivation of up to two mature cannabis plants. The law retains criminal penalties for large-scale cultivation and sales of the drug. 

On Thursday afternoon, however, Winooski Rep. Diana Gonzalez began laying the procedural groundwork for a vote on legislation that would create a legal cultivation industry and tax retail marijuana sales.

Gonzalez said she’s motivated by a lack of resources for opioid addiction treatment in Vermont.

“If we had a tax-and-regulate system for marijuana, then we could have some funds to address, in terms of prevention and treatment, in ways that we know that we need,” Gonzalez said.

The tax-and-regulate model isn’t a new concept in Montpelier. Last April, the Vermont Senate gave overwhelming approval to a bill that would have created a legal cannabis industry in Vermont, akin to what’s in place in Colorado and Washington state.

That approach proved far less popular in the Vermont House. But Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman said that after the House voted to legalize small-scale possession and cultivation earlier this year, he began reaching out to Republicans.

“And quite a few said, 'now that it’s legal, I think tax-and-regulate’s a better model,'" Zuckerman said.

Now that cannabis is legal anyway, Zuckerman said he thinks the tax-and-regulate equation in the House has changed.

“So if Progressives, the Republicans that think this is the better way, and the many Democrats that inherently support this come together, I think we have a majority,” Zuckerman said.

The Republicans who will be pushing for the tax-and-regulate bill include St. Johnsbury Rep. Janssen Willhoit, who was initially reluctant to support the legalization bill that passed earlier this year.

“I would want something that actually is regulated, so that way people know what they’re buying, and they’re safe when they can buy it,” Willhoit said.

Willhoit said it’s too early to know how many of his GOP colleagues with join Progressives and Democrats in favor of the tax-and-regulate bill. But Willhoit said he’s optimistic.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson is less so.

“I think at this point it’s far too large of a policy change to be jumping into the last week or two of the session,” Johnson said.

Johnson said many of the House lawmakers she’s spoken with say they’re uncomfortable taking up such an expansive public policy decision in the waning days of the session.

And even if the measure somehow makes it across the finish line in the House, the bill still faces long odds in 2018.

Scott has said that Vermont needs far more highway safety and public health measures in place before it moves ahead with a tax-and-regulate system. And even if House lawmakers can muster the simple majority needed to pass the bill, finding the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto will be far more difficult.

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