Pubdate: Fri, 26 Feb 2016
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2016 Times Argus
Author: Josh O'Gorman, Rutland Herald


MONTPELIER - Senators made it easier for the little guy to break into 
the cultivation business when they gave their final approval to 
marijuana legalization Thursday afternoon.

By a vote of 17 to 12, the Senate approved what has been arguably the 
most debated bill of this legislative session, and in doing so, sends 
it to the House for further discussion.

"It's a relief for me to have it out of the Senate," said Sen. Dick 
Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and 
someone who became an unlikely advocate for legalization.

Sears thanked his fellow lawmakers, including colleagues such as 
Sens. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, and Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, 
both of whom voted for the bill while in committee despite their 
opposition, which allowed the bill to come to the Senate floor for debate.

"I'm appreciative of even those who opposed it," Sears said. "I think 
it's a great example of people working together even when they oppose 
having legislation; they'll at least debate it on the floor, and it's 
unfortunate that's not happening in Washington, D.C."

On Wednesday, the preliminary vote on the bill was 16 to 13, but on 
Thursday, the bill picked up an additional supporter: Sen. Becca 
Balint, D-Windham.

On Wednesday, Balint said that while she supports legalization in 
theory, she opposed the bill because it restricted cultivation to 
those people who had $15,000 to $25,000 to pay for a non-refundable 
application fee that gives them a chance to receive one of a limited 
number of licenses, which is expected to involve some kind of 
screening process.

However, Balint said she was persuaded to change her vote Thursday 
following the introduction of an amendment from Sen. John Rodgers, 
D-Essex/Orleans, to create smaller, more reasonably priced licenses. 
Rodgers proposed creating licenses for smaller growing operations, 
with application fees ranging from $3,000 to $7,500.

"My feeling is that, with the size and cost of what was in the 
underlying bill, the cultivator licenses were out of reach for most 
Vermonters," Rodgers said. "In my view, this makes it much more 
affordable for the average Vermonter who wants a cultivator license 
to have one."

With a voice vote, Senate lawmakers adopted Rodgers' amendment.

All in all, it took approximately two months for the bill to work its 
way through the Senate, which is roughly the amount of time the House 
will have when lawmakers return to Montpelier on March 7 following 
town meeting week.

"No one should be able to use time as an excuse not to get this 
done," said Gov. Peter Shumlin, who supports legalization. "My 
prediction is, what happened in the Senate may well happen in the 
House: logic, good information will encourage House members to do 
what they were elected to do, which is to make their best judgments 
to protect the safety, health and welfare of the people who elected them."

House Speaker Shap Smith said the bill was not one identified as a 
top priority for his chamber at the start of the session.

Smith noted the Senate votes Wednesday and Thursday did not result in 
the bill having a lot of momentum coming into the House, where it 
will have to pass through at least three committees: appropriations, 
judiciary and ways and means.

Smith said the top priority of the House Judiciary Committee, where 
the bill will first land, is an overhaul of the way people are fined 
for driving with a suspended license. He predicted the committee will 
take up the marijuana legalization bill in approximately three weeks.

"I have concerns there is not the level of support within the House 
to move this across the line," Smith said. "Most people believe the 
policy we have in place now is not working. I think the question that 
has to be answered is, will the alternative that has come over from 
the Senate address the areas where the policy isn't working now?"
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom