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Vermont Bill To Legalize Marijuana Sales Moves To House

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As Vermont’s legislature resumes following last week’s recess, key committees and lawmakers are putting renewed focus on legislation to tax and regulate marijuana sales for adults.

The state Senate gave veto-proof approval to S. 54 earlier this month. Now the proposal goes to the House for consideration, but the larger legislative body isn’t going to rush into a floor vote right away; it still has other bills to evaluate before it can take up legislation “crossing over” from the Senate.

“The House has a tendency to go through things with a fine-tooth comb,” Rep. Sam Young (D) of Glover told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “It’s just the nature of the House. We’ve never taken testimony on tax and regulate either.”

“The Senate’s done it several times, but not in the House,” he said. “I believe the support is there, we’ve just got to do the work and fine-tune some stuff.”

The Senate-passed legislation would impose a 16 percent excise tax on sales along with a two percent local option tax for towns that levee the fee. The bill provides for the creation of a three-person Cannabis Control Board that would issue licenses and regulate the marijuana economy. Officials have projected a range of $3.8 million to $7.4 million in revenue in the first fiscal year, with the expected haul rising to as much as $16.6 million by 2024.

The bill has not yet been assigned to a committee by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D), though Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas (D) of Bradford said it is likely to come before the House Committee on Government Operations, which she chairs.

“It could reside in my committee the entire time and I could ask for input from the Judiciary, Agriculture, General and probably the Human Services committees as well,” she said.

Copeland-Hanzas said she’ll also likely end up needing additional panels to consult on the bill.

Under the legislation as it stands, licenses for cultivators and testing labs would be issued between September and October of 2020. Retailers would receive licenses in spring 2021.

Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana by legislative action—as opposed to via a voter initiative—in 2018, but it left out any provision to allow its sale. The Senate has passed legislation to legalize and regulate cannabis sales multiple times in the past, but the larger House, where S. 54 sits now, has failed to adopt similar proposals.

While the current bill’s path through the House remains to be seen, proponents say newly expanded Democratic and Progressive majorities in both chambers will play to their favor.

“The fact that we have separated the question of whether or not we have marijuana legal for adult consumption from the question of whether or not we have retail sales does make a difference to a lot of people,” Copeland-Hanzas said.

Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate from Middlebury, said he was looking forward to hearing testimony in the House.

“My sense is the reason that tax and regulate votes have failed in the House in the past is because there have been no substantive committee hearings on tax and regulate,” he said. “In order to get big policy done, a lot of people just feel like the process is very important and folks who are sympathetic toward tax and regulate, who are supportive of tax and regulate, have held back because of that lack of process.”

“What’s different this year is that the speaker has publicly stated that we are going to get multiple committees involved with the process this year, and I think that’s a huge step this year,” he added. “It’s something I’ve been begging for for the past three years.”

Although she has committed to holding hearings on the issue, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) has also said she’s unconvinced the state is ready for taxed and regulated sales.

“You know, I’m honestly really torn on it,” she told Vermont Public Radio in January.

The House’s Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs is holding on to H. 196, a separate tax and regulate bill, authored and introduced by Young and cosponsored by more than a third of the House’s membership. In his legislation, existing dispensaries, which currently only serve patients on the state’s medical marijuana registry, could pay a $75,000 fee to start recreational sales to the public next year.

Those collected funds would be used to offset the costs of setting up the Cannabis Control Board. Senate leaders opted to not include a similar measure in their bill, saying it would create an unfair advantage for the current providers.

“I think it could be helpful in front-loading some of the revenue that we need,” Copeland-Hanzas said. “This is really all about consumer protection, and it’s hard to imagine where in a small state we’re going to find a bunch of budgetary dollars to do that.”

Other details the House will have to grapple with include the rate at which sales are taxed, funds for education and prevention efforts and the number of positions on the Cannabis Control Board— which had dropped from five to three positions in the final version of the Senate’s bill.

Gov. Phil Scott (R), who reluctantly signed legislation to legalize low-level marijuana possession and home cultivation last year, has said he would be unwilling to sign a bill to tax and regulate sales unless public safety initiatives, including roadside testing, are funded as well.

“To be very direct: There must be comprehensive and convincing plans completed in these areas before I will begin to consider the wisdom of implementing a commercial ‘tax and regulate’ system for an adult marijuana market,” he said last year prior to signing the previous bill.

Young said he’s aware of Scott’s demands.

“We need to work it out with the governor because we’re going to need a signature,” he said. “Without it, all the effort is for nothing.”

Vermont Senate Passes Marijuana Sales Legalization Bill

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

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Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization In Committee Vote

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A Texas House committee approved a marijuana decriminalization bill on Monday that would make simple possession punishable by a fine, with no jail time, and without having to go on an individual’s criminal record.

The legislation passed in a 5-2 vote out of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and now heads to a separate panel responsible for placing bills on the calendar for floor debates.

Possession of one ounce or less of cannabis would be punished with a $250 fine for the first two offenses. After that, possession would be considered a class C misdemeanor, which is still a lesser penalty compared to current law. As it stands, possession of two ounces or less is a class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail as well as a permanent criminal record, which carries steep collateral consequences.

Earlier this month, the committee held a hearing on the legislation and heard testimony about the long-term impacts of having a low-level cannabis conviction on a person’s record and how removing criminal penalties for possession can free up law enforcement resources so that officers can tackle more serious crimes.

Advocates are hopeful that the full House will embrace the modest reform measure, even as the legislature contemplates other cannabis policies such as expanding the state’s limited medical marijuana program.

“We are very optimistic about the chances of HB 63 passing on the floor of the Texas House,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Overall, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that we shouldn’t be wasting valuable criminal justice resources arresting and prosecuting people for small amounts of marijuana. Texas is ready.”

While medical cannabis expansion, to say nothing of adult-use legalization, remains a dubious prospect in the conservative stronghold, removing the threat of jail time for possession has gained popularity among Texas Republicans. Delegates for the Republican Party of Texas adopted a platform plank last year that endorses marijuana decriminalization, for example.

“We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time,” the plank states.

What’s more, the policy has even received a tentative green light from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has said he is open to legislation that would reduce penalties for simple possession.

During a gubernatorial debate last year, Abbot said he doesn’t want to see “jails stockpiled with people who have possession of small amounts of marijuana” and floated the idea of reducing the penalty for marijuana possession from a class B to a class C misdemeanor.

According to Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, the legislation currently has 32 authors or co-authors.

Connecticut Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Key Committee

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Connecticut Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Key Committee

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A key committee in the Connecticut legislature approved a bill to legalize marijuana on Monday.

The General Law Committee, which is one of two panels that heard testimony about legalization legislation last week, voted 10 to 8 to advance the bill.

Beyond legalizing cannabis for adult use, the legislation also includes a number of social equity provisions aimed at encouraging participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war. A governor-appointed commission would be charged with giving such individuals advance time to apply for a marijuana business license and promote diversity in hiring.

“At the end of the day, if we’re moving, it’s not about revenue. It’s about equity,” Rep. Juan Candelaria (D) said at the meeting. “It’s about ensuring that these communities that have been impacted, that we say we’re not going to stay idle anymore.”

The commission would also be required to study the potential impacts of allowing cannabis microbusinesses and a home cultivation option, which are not currently included in the bill. Delivery would be permitted, however.

While advocates generally support the bill, there are some outstanding concerns about the lack of a home grow option. The lack of specific licenses for delivery services and on-site consumption facilities is another sticking point.

“Marijuana prohibition was borne of misinformation and racism and it continues to be enforced unequally to this day,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said at last week’s hearing.

It’s not yet clear whether the legislature will ultimately pass this proposal or a separate bill in the Senate, but if either does end up on the desk of Gov. Ned Lamont (D), he’s expected to sign. The governor called legalization one of his “priorities” last year and also discussed the issue during a budget speech last month.

The legislature’s Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on legalization legislation on Thursday.

A separate bill to revise the state’s medical cannabis program by adding opioid use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions and eliminating a registration certification fee for patients and caregivers was also approved by the General Law Committee on Monday.

Connecticut Lawmakers Hold Two Simultaneous Hearings On Marijuana Legalization Bills

This story was updated to note the committee’s vote tally.

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Marijuana Legalization Vote Cancelled Due To Lack of Support In New Jersey Senate

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Marijuana reform advocates experienced a setback on Monday after bill to legalize cannabis in New Jersey was pulled from the agenda due to a lack of votes to pass the legislation in the Senate.

The proposal would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess, consume and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers. It included a number of social equity provisions meant to encourage participation in the industry by individuals from communities most harmed by the war on drugs, and it also would’ve created a pathway for expedited expungements for prior cannabis convictions.

Two committees—the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee—approved companion cannabis legalization bills last week.

But while Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and leading lawmakers reached a compromise on certain details on how to carry out legalization earlier this month, the legislation faced resistance and was taken off the table hours before scheduled votes in the Senate and Assembly.

“History is rarely made on the first try,” Murphy said in a press conference. “Certainly I’m disappointed but we are not defeated… We all remain committed to passing this bill and making our state a national model for justice and opportunity because ultimately this is the right thing to do for New Jersey, and we know the people of New Jersey are on our side.”

“While we are all disappointed that we did not secure enough votes to ensure legislative approval of the adult use cannabis bill today, we made substantial progress on a plan that would make significant changes in social policy,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) said in a statement. “This fight is not over. We need to learn from this experience and continue to move forward. While this legislation is not advancing today, I remain committed to its passage.”

“The legalization of adult-use marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey, one way or another,” he added at a press conference. “Anybody who thinks this is dead, they’re wrong.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) echoed those sentiments.

“Today we may not be able to get a bill over the finish line but I’m proud of the effort we made and the discussions we had. It’s a big and complicated issue,” he said in a press conference. “We all remain committed to enacting fair and responsible legislation that will be groundbreaking and a national model.”

According to a whip count tracking tool for the legislation that was created by NJ.com, a majority of senators (23) planned to vote “no” as of Monday morning, compared to just eight who said they’d vote in favor of the bill, with nine others undetermined. Other sources indicated that 18 senators planned to vote “yes.”

In the days leading up to the Monday session, the legislation received a number of high-profile endorsements, including from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rev. Al Sharpton and CNN host Van Jones. The governor’s office also released a list of quotes supporting the bill from lawmakers, activists and spiritual leaders.

“With this bill, New Jersey legislators can send a strong message to the country that marijuana legalization and social justice must be inextricably linked,” Booker said last week. “I’m hopeful our state will succeed in setting this example.”

Those endorsements were ultimately not enough to convince a sufficient number of on-the-fence state senators, some of whom raised concerns about the potential public health and safety impacts of legalization.

“This is a tragedy for social and racial justice in New Jersey. This legislation was supported by a broad coalition of civil rights, advocacy and faith organizations across the state and the majority of New Jersey voters,” Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said. “But, we will not give up. We will continue to fight for marijuana legalization legislation centered on racial and social justice. It is only a matter of time before this legislation is enacted and all New Jerseyans can share in the benefits it will create.”

Prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana described the news as a “huge victory for us.”

“They told us legalization was inevitable, and this action proves them wrong, Kevin Sabet, the group’s president, said in a press release.

With the cancellation of the vote, it may be months before lawmakers take up the idea again.

“Voters and lawmakers both agree that the practice of treating marijuana consumers as second-class citizens must end. Unfortunately, legislative intransigence regarding how best to create a regulatory framework has resulted in, at least for now, a continuation of the failed policy of marijuana criminalization in the Garden State,” NORML Political Associate Tyler McFadden said in a press release.

“[I]t should be acknowledged that, to date, no state has taken legislative action to regulate the adult use marijuana market,” she said. “In every jurisdiction where regulations exist, they were enacted by a direct vote of the citizenry. Based on current polling in New Jersey, we have little doubt that, if provided the opportunity, Garden State voters would take similar action.”

A poll last month found that New Jersey adults support legalizing marijuana, 62 percent to 32 percent.

Diversity Provisions Added To Marijuana Banking Bill Up For Congressional Vote This Week

This story was updated to add comment from Sweeney, DPA, NORML and SAM.

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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