House Judiciary Marijuana Bill

After taking four weeks of testimony, including joint hearings with the Government Operations Committee and the Human Services Committee and a two-hour public hearing in the well of the House, the Judiciary Committee voted out a strike-all version of S.241 on April 8.

The House Judiciary Committee significantly scaled back the scope of S.241. Through hearing from many witnesses, it became clear to the Committee that Vermont is not sufficiently addressing various problems right now that arise from the use of marijuana in the State. Law enforcement witnesses explained that Vermont lacks the infrastructure to appropriately address risks to highway safety from driving under the influence of marijuana, which is particularly dangerous when combined with alcohol consumption. Although the number of crashes involving fatalities or serious bodily injury has gone down, the number where a driver had THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) in his or her blood has been going up. Law enforcement does not have the tools or resources at present to address this growing problem.

Although youth usage of marijuana has remained steady, the perception that regular use of marijuana causes harm has been declining. The Committee heard from members of the medical and educational communities on the deleterious effects of regular marijuana use on the developing brain and mental performance. It also heard from members of the education community who explained that the State does not currently devote the appropriate resources to address substance abuse, be it from tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana.

Dr. Harry Chen, the Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, reviewed the Department’s Health Impact Assessment related to marijuana. The report explains the many negative health effects from regular marijuana usage, including increases in psychosis, decreased psychosocial functioning, motor vehicle accidents, development of use dependence, and decreased academic performance.

Witnesses from Colorado and Washington shared their experiences and offered advice. The bottom line, however, is that it is too early to tell what the long-term impacts of marijuana legalization will be in those states. Increased usage in Vermont and the increase in negative impacts to highway safety are concerns if Vermont is the only New England state to legalize marijuana given that Vermont is within a day’s drive of some 40 million people.

Judiciary also heard from many proponents of legalization. They explained that marijuana is already widely used by Vermonters. These users should not have to confront the dangers associated with the black market, including product that includes pesticides or other additives and exposure to dealers selling other, more harmful drugs. Individuals should have the same right to moderate use of marijuana as they do to consume alcohol without being subject to criminal penalties so long as they are not causing others harm.

Taking heed of the testimony, on Wednesday the Committee Chair proposed a strike-all amendment to S.241. The bill retained certain provisions of the Senate bill, including sections establishing an education and prevention program, creating a crime for certain dangerous chemical extraction processes (such as was uncovered recently in Winooski), prohibiting the consumption or possession of marijuana in a motor vehicle, calling for the Vermont Governor’s Highway Safety Program to expand its public education and prevention campaign to include drugged driving, requiring additional training for law enforcement, and establishing a workforce study committee. The bill also retained a modified provision establishing a marijuana advisory committee.

The proposal also established a new impaired driving violation to account for the heightened traffic safety risk from polysubstance use – the combined consumption of both alcohol and marijuana. The strike-all amendment would prohibit individuals from operating or attempting to operate a vehicle with an alcohol concentration of .05 or more and any detectable amount of delta-9 THC in the person’s blood.

Acknowledging testimony from numerous witnesses that individuals who use small amounts of marijuana or grow a limited number of plants should not be treated as criminals, the proposal also extended the decriminalization efforts of the last legislature. It provided that possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana would be treated as a civil violation, as opposed to the current one-ounce limit. It also decriminalized the cultivation of up to two marijuana plants, recognizing that decriminalizing possession of a small amount of marijuana is inconsistent with requiring users to engage in criminal conduct to obtain that marijuana. In addition, the proposal decreased the penalties for other marijuana offenses, changing certain offenses to misdemeanors and reducing maximum jail times and fines.

This proposed strike-all was voted down on a 6 to 5 vote. An amendment to the bill was proposed that took out the provisions related to decriminalization. This strike-all amendment passed on a 6 to 5 vote.

With the strike-all amendment, the Judiciary Committee recognizes that Vermont seeks to address public health and safety issues that currently confront the state from marijuana use. It also recognizes that legalization of marijuana is likely going to occur more broadly in the region. It allows the state to prepare for that eventuality while also addressing current concerns.