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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Scott And Legislative Leaders Move Towards An Agreement On Marijuana Legalization Bill

A new advisory commission created by Gov. Phil Scott this week will focus on the issue of marijuana legalization in Vermont.
Vermont lawmakers working on a bill to legalize marijuana say they have now presented a compromise to Gov. Phil Scott that would address many of the concerns he raised when he vetoed a legalization bill in May.

In May, Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a bill that would legalize marijuana due to several public safety concerns. Now, lawmakers think they have a compromise that would win the governor's approval. 

When Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the marijuana legalization bill last month, he made it very clear that the veto did not represent his opposition to the idea of legalizing pot. Instead, he said he rejected the legislation because he had several public safety concerns with the bill.

The governor also wanted a special commission, that was created in the legislation, to have some additional time to study how Vermont could move towards a full scale state regulatory model. It's an approach that would include retail stores and the taxation of marijuana.

If lawmakers responded to these issues in a new bill, Scott said he would support it.

"If they are willing to work with me to address my concerns in a new bill, passed during the Veto session this summer there is a path forward on this issue," said Scott.  

Legislative leaders working on this issue say they've come up with a compromise that addresses most of Scott's concerns. These include tougher penalties for selling marijuana to a minor and longer sentences for smoking pot in a car when a child is present. Caledonia senator Joe Benning is a member of this group.

"That bill has been presented to the governor,” said Benning. “I believe there is going to be consensus on this subject, there may be some further tweaks."

"That bill has been presented to the governor, I believe there is going to be consensus on this subject." — Caledonia Sen. Joe Benning

Benning says the bill allows individuals to possess up to an ounce of pot and grow several plants. It also gives the special commission three additional months to review the state regulation model.

"Legalization will happen in July of 2018,” said Benning. “Secondly, there will be a commission put in place to try to figure out how, why and what should be done to try to monitor and potentially tax this entire situation."  

Rebecca Kelley is the governor's communications director. She says Scott is encouraged by the latest proposal.

"I think we're making progress towards an agreement, we'll be getting back to them with our thoughts,” said Kelley. “The governor had said what he wanted to see but he adds that we're willing to work with the Legislature so they put forward their proposal and we're making good progress and having productive conversations to work towards an agreement."

"We're making good progress and having productive conversations to work towards an agreement." — Gov. Scott's communications director Rebecca Kelley

The wildcard in the marijuana debate is House Minority Leader Don Turner. Turner says he'll encourage members of his caucus not to support parliamentary procedures that are needed to bring the pot bill to the House floor for a vote.

"I personally still don't see any reason to rush this,” said Turner. “I don't understand why this has to be done in a two day session when we go back in January for the regular session."

And by hitting the pause button on the legalization of pot, Turner argues that Vermont officials might learn some important information from the other states that have legalized marijuana.

"And see if some of the pitfalls that they have and avoid them,” said Turner. ”So I would make the argument it's better to be slow and deliberate and understand what the true ramifications of legalization will be on Vermont and Vermonters."  

Senator Benning is also a Republican. He hopes his counterparts in the House will allow a healthy debate to take place over this issue.

"I personally would hope that they would want to be involved in this conversation rather than saying we don't want to talk about it at all," said Benning.  

If the Scott administration and lawmakers are able to reach a final compromise in the next week, Scott says he will "reach out" to members of the House Republican caucus to encourage them not to block consideration of the bill during the upcoming veto session.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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