By a vote of 23 to 5, the Vermont Senate gave its preliminary approval to a so-called tax-and-regulate marijuana bill Thursday. Under the bill, pot could be legally sold in retail outlets beginning in 2021.
Despite the strong vote in the Senate, the legislation faces an uncertain future.
According to Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears, this vote marks the sixth time that the Vermont Senate has taken up the issue of allowing the retail sale of marijuana in the last three years. Every effort to pass a tax-and-regulate plan has been rejected by the Vermont House.
Under the bill — known as S.54 — marijuana would be sold the same way that alcohol is sold in Vermont. The state would oversee the production, distribution and sale of pot in licensed retail outlets.
The legislation includes a 16 percent state excise tax and it also allows communities to add on up to a 2 percent local option tax.
Caledonia Sen. Joe Benning, one the lead sponsors of the bill, said the legislation is a responsible way to acknowledge that almost every state in the northeast and Canada are moving in this direction.
"That snowball is rolling, and it is not going to turn back," said Benning. "So the question becomes do we get hold of this problem and do it the right way, the Vermont way?"
Benning said it's important to have state oversight to ensure the quality of the product, which is something he said doesn't exist today on the black market.
"The larger danger in that is that when they are selling that product, cannabis, they are probably also selling something else that's far worse," Benning said.
Something the bill doesn't specifically address is the issue of driver impairment due to marijuana use. Senate Transportation Chairman Dick Mazza voted against the bill for that reason.
"My concern is that we have nothing in this bill to address the safety on our highways, of our police departments, and our public safety," said Mazza. "That bothers me."
But Sears said Vermont already has very tough impairment laws in place and that it's virtually impossible to accurately test for marijuana impairment.
"There is no test currently available to determine whether a specific amount of marijuana, or any other drug for that matter, would result in impairment,” said Sears.
The Senate bill also doesn't include a specific appropriation for prevention and education programs for young people. Chittenden Sen. Debbie Ingram urged her colleagues to address these issues in a separate bill.
"We are on some level communicating the message that, 'Well it's legitimate, it might not be harmful to you — you know, go ahead and use it,'" Ingram said. "So I just want to make sure that we give our young people, especially, a full picture of what substance misuse can mean in a person's life."
The legislation is scheduled to come up for final approval Friday in the Senate. Beyond that, the future of the legislation is uncertain.
Gov. Phil Scott said recently that he won't support a bill unless it includes a driver impairment provision and a public education component.
"I think that's part of where we need to go. We need to have to detect impairment on our highways and with any substance, I think it's that important,” said Scott. “And there's no rush from my perspective. Let's get it right. I mean, we can watch what others have done, learn from them and do better."
House leaders also have concerns about the lack of a driver impairment provision in the bill.