Key Vermont lawmakers announced on Wednesday that they are working to finalize a bill to legalize marijuana sales by the end of this month, but disagreements over an unrelated provision dealing with seat belt policy could jeopardize the plan.
While advocates felt encouraged that a bicameral conference committee convened to hash out differences between versions of the cannabis legislation passed by the House and Senate, the meeting of the six lawmakers became especially contentious when the discussion turned to seat belts.
The House inserted a section in their version of the marijuana bill that would allow police to pull people over for not wearing seat belts—a proposal that’s been a consistent source of controversy in the Vermont legislature. During the bicameral negotiation session, the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Dick Sears (D), called the provision a “deal killer.”
“If the House is going to insist on this provision then we might as well walk away,” he said.
Rep. John Gannon (D), who chairs the House Committee on Government Operations, responded that it’s a “critical position for the House” that “goes to our concern about highway safety.”
Sen. Joe Benning (R) argued that allowing police to pull people over for failing to wear a seat belt would lead to unnecessary police encounters that are likely to have a racially disparate impact.
“A police officer will look for any reason they can to pull over a car. Once you open this door you are going to radically increase the number of stops,” he said. “That’s going to have an impact, especially on people of color.”
That said, if the seat belt dispute and other outstanding issues between the two chambers are ultimately resolved, it could be only a matter of weeks before the cannabis commerce legislation, S. 54, is sent to the governor’s desk. The committee plans to meet again on August 24 and then once more on August 31, which is when members indicated they want to finalize the bill.
Watch the conference committee meeting on the marijuana commerce bill below:
The panel would still have to get authorization to sign the conference report from the Joint Rules Committee. Then the unified proposal would go back to both chambers for a final vote on sending it to Gov. Phil Scott (R).
Vermont legalized possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivation of two plants in 2018, but there is currently no regulatory system in place that allows for retail sales. The marijuana commerce bill cleared both the House and Senate this session, albeit in different forms—necessitating the conference committee negotiations.
Wednesday’s meeting revealed exactly which areas still need to be ironed out between the chambers. Beside the seat belt issue, there were concerns about which regulatory body should be responsible for overseeing the state’s existing medical cannabis program, how tax revenues would be distributed, municipal decision-making on marijuana businesses and reporting requirements for regulators charged with overseeing the industry.
Sears, who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, called those reporting requirements “ridiculous.”
There was also debate over whether to allow saliva testing of drivers—a policy that the governor is especially interested in enacting.
“I’m pleased that the conference committee was finally able to meet today, and that they were able to resolve several of the outstanding issues,” Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate, told Marijuana Moment. “I’m confident that, if conferees continue to negotiate in good faith without interference, the remaining issues will be resolved as well, given that Vermonters overwhelmingly support establishing a regulated cannabis market.”
After the initial discussion, members broke up for private intra-chamber meetings to consider paths forward in the conference negotiations.
When the full bicameral panel reconvened, Sears made a few proposals on behalf of the Senate to move closer to consensus. For example, he said the body would be inclined to drop the Senate’s licensee residency prioritization provisions if the House would stand down on advertising restrictions that are in its bill.
There is still significant disagreement over local control provisions, however, with Sears saying the sides are “nowhere near any agreement.” The House wants to make it so that individual jurisdictions have to proactively opt in to allowing cannabis businesses to operate in their area, whereas the Senate wants businesses to be allowed by default while letting municipalities opt out if they so choose.
Senators also said they need to poll their broader chamber to get a sense of how to proceed on the House’s saliva testing proposal.
House members of the committee had less to say after their private meeting, but they noted that the coronavirus pandemic might warrant revising the bill to push back the timeline for implementation. Gannon also said that the chamber is interested in finding a way to reduce the deficit that will result from initial implementation costs, perhaps by requiring licensing fees to be paid earlier.
“It is encouraging to see that the legislators on this committee appear to understand the importance of moving forward with S. 54,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Based on what we heard today, it sounds like there’s a good chance the committee will agree on final details by the end of this month.”
On a separate note, 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.