County senators split on pot legalization bill

VERGENNES — If the Vermont Legislature passes a bill this year legalizing small quantities of marijuana, it will not come with the support of a majority of Addison County lawmakers.
Area lawmakers spoke against the current marijuana bill, S.241, during Monday’s legislative breakfast in Vergennes sponsored by Bridport Grange #343 and the Addison County Farm Bureau. The bill proposes to make it legal for adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. It would also establish a system of controlled, licensed marijuana cultivation sites, testing facilities, and retail stores for the sale of the product. It would remain illegal to consume marijuana in public or drive under the influence of the drug.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, said S.241 has already passed through the Senate Government Operations, Judiciary and Finance Committees, en route to Senate Appropriations. Bray believes the pot legalization bill could come up for a full Senate vote as soon as next week.
Senate Finance last week recommended placing a 25 percent tax on retail sales of marijuana. The state’s Joint Fiscal Office has tentatively estimated the tax could generate almost $7 million in revenues in 2018.
If OK’d by the General Assembly and signed into law, the marijuana measure would take effect on Jan. 2, 2018.
But votes could be hard to come by if Monday’s feedback from the Addison County delegation is any indication.
Bray said he has heard a lot of testimony on the bill as a member of Senate Government Operations. In weighing that testimony, Bray said he has asked himself, “Will this bill make Vermont a healthier state?”
The answer thus far has been “no,” according to Bray.
He added the marijuana bill is also unlikely to make Vermont safer.
“I currently can’t support the bill,” Bray concluded.
Neither can Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes. Lanpher worked for many years as a training coordinator for the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse of the Vermont Department of Health, experience that has made her wary of legalization efforts.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, said he has received a lot of constituent calls on the subject of pot legalization.
“Most of the people who have contacted me are opposed to it, for a variety of reasons,” he said. “Health and safety are critical issues that need to be discussed and understood before anything should move forward.”
Smith also rejected the notion of recreational pot as a “tax panacea.”
“I would guess that no matter what we would tax it at, the taxes wouldn’t cover all the problems it creates,” Smith said. “I can’t support this bill.”
Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, said he will not support legalizing marijuana, citing pot’s reputation as a “gateway drug” as a prime example. He noted Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel has delivered a lot of testimony in the Statehouse this year about how marijuana use has been affecting the teen population.
“He has dealt with so many users, people who have had drug overdoses and died, and (Merkel) said that in a great majority of all of the cases, these people have started with marijuana,” Van Wyck said. “That’s one of the reasons to be opposed to it.”
Van Wyck added he has been urged by representatives of statewide medical associations to keep marijuana illegal.
Vermont lawmakers, in considering pot legalization, have been reviewing the experience of Colorado, which OK’d possession of small quantities of recreational marijuana back in December of 2013. Van Wyck said research has shown that more Colorado high school students now have access to marijuana, in spite of the fact that the state’s age limit is 21 for possession of recreational pot.
“To say that somehow, 21 and over is going to make a difference, it’s just not going to work out,” he said.
“I don’t think (legalization) would be good for Vermont, and I don’t think it should be the Vermont brand,” Van Wyck added. “Let Colorado have the Rocky Mountain high at this point.”
Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, said the emails he has received thus far have been split 50-50 on the question of pot legalization. But he said he has not found compelling reasons to support the bill.
“So far… I don’t see the pluses adding up on how legalization will help Vermont and Vermonters,” he said.
Local residents at Monday’s breakfast also weren’t excited about the prospect of legal marijuana.
“We don’t need to use marijuana as a way to solve our economic problems,” said Vergennes resident Pat Brooks. “It will only cause more problems for the state of Vermont.”
Bristol resident Lynn Dike said her daughters don’t have grandmothers because of smoking and alcohol. She is concerned that marijuana would legitimize an additional harmful habit that could end people’s lives prematurely.
“I think if we legalize marijuana to solve an economic problem, then we are totally wrong,” Dike said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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