This week’s update that will appear in the Mountain Times and Vermont Standard.
Not easy to say “NO”
In contrast of my opposition to legalization of recreational marijuana last year, I indicated during last fall’s campaign and throughout this session that I was open to a “tax and regulate” system for marijuana if it could be done the right way in my view. I often look to how we regulated spirits following prohibition. If we are going to have a commercial market, let’s be sure the taxes are sufficient to cover the costs, including education and prevention, that there are adequate safeguards for road safety and that the market is well regulated.
So when the committee on which I serve, House Government Operations, received the Senate bill, S.54, which establishes a “tax and regulate” approach to marijuana, I was hopeful we could mold the legislation to get it to the point I could support it. Not because I am a fan of the substance (I am not), but because it is already legal and it may be time to be pragmatic about it going forward.
After several weeks of testimony, input from other committees and some 32 re-drafts of the bill, I was the lone dissenting vote in committee late last Thursday and S.54 advanced on a 10-1 vote.
I voted NO primarily for the following reasons:
- There is no provision for even a voluntary non-evidentiary saliva test at roadside. In my view (and the State Police who gave a demo to interested lawmakers on how it would work), such a test option would assist an officer during a stop make a decision as to whether to proceed with further examination at the barracks or police station (which may mean 3-4 hours of detention) or to rule out any likelihood of drug impairment. The bill specifically prohibits a roadside test for drugs, even a voluntary one.
- The committee version of the bill does not allow towns to prohibit marijuana operations within their municipality (growing, processing, dispensary or wholesale) other than retail stores.
- It establishes another arm of state government with a new five member full time Cannabis Board plus staffing (projected deficit of $2.3 million for the first two years). I had unsuccessfully recommended we put it under the Dept of Liquor Control, which already regulates a controlled substance and has law enforcement capabilities. I also suggested a slight tax increase on marijuana to better cover its costs, which was also rejected.
Evidence from other states that have gone down this path of a regulated, but open retail market, suggests marijuana use will increase along with corresponding impacts (impairment on the road, psychosis and other mental health disorders). However, it’s difficult to compare as other states went directly from an illegal market to a tax and regulated one. Marijuana is already legal here.
There are other parts of the legislation that will be helpful in my view. For example, there are restrictions on packaging, labels and advertising. There is required training and background checks of those in the cannabis industry. 30% of future tax revenues (up to $6 million annually) are allocated for prevention efforts. While the Governor called for more $$, it is an improvement from the Senate version, which had no money for education and prevention.
The measure has been referred to the House Ways & Means Committee, where the tax rates will receive another review. I remain hopeful the bill will be amended further to address the concerns I raised above if the legislation is to be completed in the remaining time in this session.
Meanwhile, last Friday, the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced its version of the FY 2020 state budget, a clear sign that the session end is near. While the legislature is projected to complete its work by May 18, it could spill over until the following week if “must pass” legislation like the budget and any revenue bills to support it are not completed.
Lead testing in schools and child care centers was approved by the House last week. A funding proposal for clean water efforts is being advanced with a portion of the rooms and meals tax and replacing that revenue to the education fund with extending the sales tax to online software. Bills to establish a paid family leave plan, increase the minimum wage and ban plastic bags are all moving. However differences between the two Chambers as well as with the Governor will need to be worked out.
Stay tuned…sure to be an interesting couple of weeks ahead.