The Senate Judiciary Committee is quickly moving ahead with a tax-and-regulate marijuana bill, but the plan could face an uncertain future with the Scott administration because it doesn't include the driver impairment measures that the governor says must be part of the bill.
There are 15 co-sponsors on the S.54 legislation, and that list gives a sense of the broad support it has in the 30-seat Vermont Senate.
The bill calls for the creation of a cannabis commission that would oversee the production, taxation and retail sale of marijuana, similar to the way that Vermont currently regulates alcohol.
"When we started this effort a few years ago we would have been the first in New England — now we may be one of the last in New England to tax and regulate the marijuana,” said Bennington Sen. Dick Sears, a lead sponsor of the bill. "You know, it's all around us, and I think it's time to move on."
Sears said he sees the proposal primarily as a consumer protection bill because state regulation will ensure the quality of the product.
"We know that many Vermonters — now that it's a legal product, has been for over a year — that they're going and they're buying it on the black market and so forth," said Sears. "And we'd prefer to have Vermonters buying it in Vermont, a regulated drug."
But, the Senate bill doesn't address one of Gov. Phil Scott's major concerns: driver impairment. He thinks the tax-and-regulate effort should wait until there's been a full evaluation of how other states are dealing with this issue.
"Others are going through this in real time, and we should learn from them,” Scott has said. “And that's what my concern is — if we're going to do this, let's go into this with our eyes wide open, make sure that we're doing it for the right reasons, and do it in a thoughtful manner so that we don't put anybody at risk."
Sears said the bill before the Senate doesn't address driver impairment concerns because he considers that to be a different issue from tax and regulate.
Sears said the state already has strong driver impairment laws in place and he'd be willing to look at a variety of ways to make them stronger. But he said the problem with most marijuana tests is that they measure the presence of marijuana even if it was consumed weeks before.
"But that doesn't mean that we should entertain a test that doesn't tell us anything, [that] only tells us that somebody has marijuana in their system or some other drug in their system,” said Sears. “It doesn't tell us anything about impairment."
Sears said the Senate Judiciary Committee will spend several days this week reviewing the legislation. He’s hoping that the full Senate will take final action on the bill and send it over to the House by Town Meeting Day in early March.