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Vermont Lawmakers Make Key Compromises On Marijuana Sales Legalization Bill As Deal Nears

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A bill to legalize marijuana sales in Vermont in nearing the finish line, with a bicameral conference committee meeting again on Friday to hash out the remaining differences between each chamber’s respective versions of the legislation. And on the same day, a separate Senate-passed bill providing for cannabis expungements advanced in the House.

Importantly, House members of the bicameral legal sales negotiation panel unveiled their counteroffer to a proposed compromise that the Senate side offered last month.

The last few conference meetings have largely focused on the economics of the cannabis commerce bill and how many tax dollars are projected to be allocated to various state programs and funds. Members have also debated policies such as which regulatory body should be responsible for overseeing the state’s existing medical marijuana program as well as reporting requirements for regulators charged with overseeing the industry.

One of the most notable compromises the House made was accepting the Senate’s proposal to shift regulatory control for the medical cannabis to the Cannabis Control Board established under the bill instead of keeping it under the Department of Public Safety.

Watch the committee conference discuss the marijuana commerce bill below: 

But there were a series of significant areas of disagreement that persisted. For example, the House maintained its position that individual jurisdictions should have to opt-in to allow marijuana businesses to operate in their area, while the Senate wanted an opt-out provision. The House also stuck with its proposed ban on advertising and restrictions on what types of products will be available to consumers.

The conference has yet to reach a consensus on the tax rate for cannabis sales. And a House-passed provision allowing police to pull people over for failure to wear seatbelts that became an early sticking point remained a point of contention until near the end of Friday’s meeting.

“Is the House unwilling to move on seatbelts? And if that’s the case, then what’s the point in keeping going?” Sen. Dick Sears (D), the chief sponsor of the reform legislation, S. 54, said at the hearing. He also said that he “understands seatbelts are important to” the House speaker and asked what the chamber would want in exchange for taking it out.

Curiously, the House recommended in their counteroffer an amendment that would prohibit people from transporting marijuana products—or alcohol—in any part of a car (even if they were in closed containers) unless they’re stored in a locked glove box or trunk. The Senate side sharply criticized that measure.

The Senate also initially rejected a House provision to add saliva to the “definition of evidentiary test for impaired driving,” and the House kept with that component as well.

Following an initial breakout at which each chamber’s negotiators met separately, the Senate made a series of significant concessions. Senators said they would accept the House’s provisions on jurisdictional opt-in, product restrictions, saliva testing and the advertising ban. But they were only willing to accept those changes if the House agreed to get rid of the seatbelt enforcement component, accept their proposed two percent local option tax and remove the amendment on cannabis transportation in cars.

The House members then broke away to discuss the Senate concessions and, when they came back, said they would be inclined to accept most of the proposal if they were able to keep their version of the tax structure. The Senate side said they would consult with colleagues and consider it over the weekend. Sears said he wanted to put the revisions past the Senate Agriculture Committee and would report back by the middle of next week.

“I’m pleased that the House and Senate were able to reach agreement on almost all of the outstanding issues,” Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate, told Marijuana Moment. “I’m particularly grateful that the House conferees were able to find a way to back off their demands for primary seatbelt enforcement as well as the absurd proposal to require Vermonters to strap the 6-pack from the grocery store onto their roof racks.”

Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Marijuana Moment that it “was very encouraging to see the conference committee reach agreement on nearly all of the outstanding issues.

“Compromise is often difficult, but legislators deserve credit for setting aside their differences and working together to help establish a regulated market for cannabis,” he said. “I’m hopeful that they will finalize the details of the bill at their next meeting.”

Gov. Phil Scott (R), who reluctantly signed a bill legalizing low-level cannabis possession and cultivation in 2018, has expressed some concerns about adding commercial sales but he may be more inclined to allow the tax-and-regulate legislation to take effect with the latest agreement given his interest in allowing saliva-based drug testing.

That said, if the conference committee does reach an agreement next week, the unified proposal would still have to go back to both chambers for final floor votes on sending it to the governor’s desk.

Updated estimates on each chamber’s tax proposals were also published on Friday. The total tax revenue projections are the same, but the Senate’s version shows higher local revenue estimates, while the House proposal would generate more dollars for the general fund.

Sears said near the end of the meeting that he was encouraged to see that the conference is “extremely close” to reaching a deal.

The conference has been meeting on Mondays since the beginning of August, but they opted to convene for a shorter conversation on Friday because of the upcoming Labor Day holiday and their collective desire to finalize the bill sooner rather than later.

Advocates likely appreciate the renewed sense of urgency, as they’ve been waiting months during the coronavirus pandemic for action on the bill since it cleared both the House and Senate earlier this session.

While Vermont legalized possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivation of two plants in 2018, there are currently no regulations in place that allow for retail sales.

Also on Friday, the House Judiciary Committee approved cannabis expungements legislation, and a full chamber vote is expected next week. Simon of MPP said the issue “is a moral imperative for Vermont” and that legislators “should be applauded for taking bold action on this issue.”

Prohibitionist group Smart Approaches To Marijuana is working to get constituents to contact House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) to raise concerns about cannabis as the legislature finalizes the legal sales bill—and they recently made the controversial decision to include her personal cell phone number in a mailer sent out to residents in her district.

Separately, the Senate approved a bill in June that would double the amount of marijuana that can be possessed and grown without the threat of jail time.

Meanwhile, Vermont Democratic Party insiders included planks to decriminalize drug possession and legalize marijuana sales in a draft platform for 2020. The document is still subject to change based on comments from county committees and delegates at the party’s September 12 convention.

Marijuana Decriminalization And Expungements Will Be Biden-Harris Priorities, Top Aide Says

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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