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With Shumlin's Time Short, Legalization Proponents Look To Move Quickly

Marijuana plants.
Gov. Peter Shumlin says he'll decide over the next few months whether 2016 is the year for legalization.

Next year’s legislative session will be the last for Gov. Peter Shumlin, who announced in June that he won’t be seeking reelection in 2016. And some prominent lawmakers are hoping to get a marijuana legalization bill to his desk before he leaves office.

Perhaps no single person has done more to advance the legalization effort in Vermont than Shumlin. The third-term governor came out in support of a tax-and-regulate model back in 2013, and like-minded legislators devoted substantial time to the issue earlier this year.

With Shumlin’s time in office now short, the window for legalization supporters may have shrunk, depending on who succeeds him. Windham Sen. Jeannette White, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, says she aims to have a legalization bill to the governor’s desk before the end of the 2016 legislative session.

“And this committee is very serious about this,” White says.

White says her committee began building the framework for a legalization bill over the course of the 2015 session. She says the committee will hold meetings on the issue in November, and then work with legislative lawyers to have a bill ready for consideration when lawmakers return in 2016.

“And there will be tax money generated. But if that’s why you’re doing it, then it’s the wrong reason and everybody has told us that, including those people in Colorado,” White says. “So what we’re trying to do is do it because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s people’s individual choice.”

Would-be entrepreneurs have already begun setting up corporate infrastructure in advance of the legislative push, and trade names like "Green Mountain Ganja" and "Queen City Cannabis" are already registered at the Secretary of State's office.

  The tax-and-regulate model has tri-partisan support in Montpelier – Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning is among its champions. The bill however still faces many skeptics, and House Speaker Shap Smith has said the state should exercise extreme caution as it ponders the move.

Would-be entrepreneurs have already begun setting up corporate infrastructure in advance of the legislative push, and trade names like “Green Mountain Ganja” and “Queen City Cannabis” are already registered at the Secretary of State’s office.

Shumlin has long said he wants to defer legalization in Vermont until the state sees how the experiment has gone in Colorado in Washington.

“The question has always been timing,” Shumlin says.

Shumlin says he’ll decide in the next few months whether 2016 is the right time for Vermont.

“So the question for all of this in this legislative session will be: do we have enough lessons to move forward with a first-step, logical plan. And we’ll assess that in the coming months,” Shumlin says.

Debby Haskins is the executive director of SMART Vermont, an organization that opposes the legalization effort. Haskins says she worries about what legalization would do to usage rates, especially among youth.

Shumlin says children can get marijuana too easily under existing policies, and that a regulated model would help restrict access to minors. Teen marijuana usage rates in Vermont are among the highest nationwide.

But Haskins says legalization would expose kids, and adults, to the same massive ad campaigns used by tobacco and alcohol companies.

“Big Marijuana is no different,” Haskins says. “And I don’t know how we would ever stop a company that has billions of dollars from coming in here and advertising and bringing in the products.”

White says her committee will reach out to supporters and opponents of legalization in advance of its formal meetings in November.

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