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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Seatbelt Issue Stalls Cannabis Bill, Coalition Calls For Racial Justice Provisions

a hand holding up a cannabis leaf
A bill to tax and regulate marijuana in Vermont is in a House-Senate conference committee, but lawmakers are divided over a seatbelt enforcement provision.

The Vermont House and Senate remain divided over legislation to establish a tax and regulate system for recreational marijuana sales. The largest disagreement is over a provision that stiffens enforcement of seatbelt laws.

The bill would legalize cannabis sales to people 21 and older. The House and Senate are at odds on a number of provisions dealing with tax rates, and how the revenues would be spent.

But on Wednesday, the House-Senate conference committee broke sharply over seatbelts, not cannabis sales. The House wants "primary enforcement" of mandatory seatbelt use. That would let police stop someone if they see they're not strapped in.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears, Democrat from Bennington County, said the provision is a non-starter.

“Could the House conferees explain how that got into the bill?” Sears asked.

More from VPR: Vermont House Approves Taxing And Regulating Marijuana Sales

“It’s a public safety measure,” replied Rep. John Gannon, a Democrat from Wilmington and the vice chair of the House Government Operations Committee.

“Well, as you know the Senate and the governor have long opposed that, and this is like a deal killer,” Sears said. “So I find it very troubling.”

The House has passed primary enforcement for seatbelts in stand-alone legislation, but it has failed in the Senate.

Gannon said several times Wednesday the seatbelt language is needed for highway safety. But conference committee member Sen. Joe Benning, a Republican from Caledonia County, said it would give police another chance to stop drivers.

Benning, a criminal defense lawyer, said that people of color would be disproportionately affected.

"In the middle of Black Lives Matter conversations, this [seatbelt provision] does exactly the opposite of what we would hope a bill like this would be doing to bring some kind of racial justice into this picture." — Sen. Joe Benning

“And in the middle of Black Lives Matter conversations, this does exactly the opposite of what we would hope a bill like this would be doing to bring some kind of racial justice into this picture,” he said.

Meanwhile, a coalition of farm and racial justice groups has come out against the legislation. The coalition includes Justice for All, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, the Vermont Growers Association, Rural Vermont, and Trace, a Vermont company that has developed a blockchain-based tracking system for the hemp and cannabis industry.

The coalition says lawmakers should start again and address issues affecting local agriculture and racial equity.

More from Brave Little State: How To Support Vermonters Of Color? 'Listen To Us'

Maddie Kempner, policy director for NOFA, noted that far more Black, Indigenous and people of color are incarcerated for marijuana offenses than white people.

“Before we allow wealthy, out-of-state, majority-white business owners to be profiting off this crop, we really need first and foremost to focus on the harms that have been done and continue to be perpetuated on primarily BIPOC folks,” she said.

The coalition says the legislation should include reparations for those harmed by the war on drugs and automatic expungement of criminal records for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses.

The conference committee agreed to meet again to work out their differences. The full Legislature returns next week.

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