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

Vt. Senate Leaders Hope To Vote On Tax-And-Regulate Marijuana Bill Within 3 Weeks

Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, standing and speaking to people gathered.
Angela Evancie
VPR File
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, pictured here in 2016, wants the Vermont Senate to vote on a tax-and-regulate marijuana bill in the near future. Sears will be a lead sponsor of the bill.

Senate leaders say they hope to quickly pass a bill that would create a retail marijuana market that the state would tax and regulate.Under this plan, the state would oversee the production and sale of marijuana at retail outlets across the state. The regulatory system would be similar to the one the state currently uses for sale of alcohol.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears, who will be a lead sponsor of the bill, says he wants the full Vermont Senate to vote on this legislation in the next few weeks.

"We certainly have voted on tax-and-regulate bills before so to most senators this won't be anything new,” Sears said.

Earlier this month, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe also expressed a desire for senators to "do their due diligence but move quickly" on legislation that would set up a retail cannabis market in Vermont.

"We certainly have voted on tax-and-regulate bills before so to most senators this won't be anything new." — Sen. Dick Sears, Judiciary Committee chairman

In its final report, released in December, the Governor's Marijuana Advisory Commissionrecommended a state tax rate of 26 percent on the sale of pot. However Sears said that rate is too high and that his bill will lower the tax to roughly 10 percent.

"We want to keep the tax as low as possible in order to be competitive with the black market so that the consumer knows what they're buying,” said Sears. “So that's an important distinction, I think, from the black market where you really don't know what you're getting."   

Some senators who voted against a tax-and-regulate bill last session are rethinking their opposition. Windsor Sen. Alice Nitka said a decision last year by lawmakers to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana is causing her to reconsider her position.

"It's out there so we should be regulating it,” Nitka said. “I mean there's an issue I think in my mind of fentanyl being mixed in with marijuana now and so we really need some regulation."   

"It's out there so we should be regulating it. I mean there's an issue I think in my mind of fentanyl being mixed in with marijuana now and so we really need some regulation." — Windsor Sen. Alice Nitka

While the bill's prospects for passage are good in the Senate, they're less certain in the House.

Gov. Phil Scott said he'll likely support the bill if it includes an effective way to test and evaluate driver impairment, but he thinks the Senate is moving too quickly this year.

"We should learn from other states. They're going through this. Others are going through this in real time, and we should learn from them,” said Scott. “If we're going to do this let's go into this with our eyes wide open, make sure that we're doing it for the right reasons, and do it in a thoughtful manner so that we don't put anybody at risk."    

But Sears disagrees, and the senator said the time has come for Vermont to pass this bill.

"Soon you'll be going to New York to buy it, and soon you'll be going to Maine to buy it, so it seems like Vermont would be in the middle,” Sears said. “And this is an opportunity to regulate, to make sure that what our people are buying, if they don't go to another state, is tested and is proper."  

Sears said he'd support the use of a saliva test to determine if a driver is impaired by the use of marijuana but only if law enforcement is first required to obtain a search warrant to administer the test.

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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