Governor says he'll sign legislation allowing marijuana possession

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Gov. Phil Scott says he will stand by his commitment to support legislation that would legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in Vermont.

"I made that commitment. It's a libertarian approach," the governor said Friday during an interview on Vermont Public Radio's "Vermont Edition."

However, he said that before supporting a measure to set up a regulatory and tax system for retail sales of marijuana, the issue of driver impairment would need to be addressed.

"Impairment is taking on a whole new meaning these days. It's not just impairment due to alcohol, not just to marijuana, but it's prescription drugs and heroin and a combination of all," the governor said on VPR. "We have to come up with a way to determine impairment on our highways regardless of what the substance is."

The governor this summer created a commission that is studying marijuana legalization and its possible impacts, including on highway safety.

The governor said in June that he would support legalizing the personal possession of up to an ounce of marijuana as well as the cultivation of a few plants.

"It's not high priority for me," the governor said Friday on "Vermont Edition," "but I did make a commitment that I was supportive of the bill that was put together."

He added that he would support similar legislation in the upcoming session.

"I haven't spoken to the legislative leaders about what their intent is," Scott said on the radio program, "but I would suspect that they'd either make some changes on the floor, send it back to committee, make some alterations, and then we'll see what they either add or delete and see if it's the same as what I said I committed to pushing forward with."

Last session, Scott vetoed S.22, a bill that would have allowed possession of small amounts of pot. In doing so, he suggested ways the bill could be changed on several points to win his support.

A new proposal kept the initial possession and cultivation provisions of the earlier legislation, but also created criminal penalties for using pot in a vehicle with children and increased penalties for providing marijuana to anyone underage.

Ultimately, a move to suspend the rules during the veto session in June to take up the marijuana measure failed to gain the support of the needed three-quarters of House members. House Republicans as well as some Democrats opposed expediting the process.

Rebecca Kelley, the governor's spokesperson, said Wednesday that Scott's recent comments are not a departure from his previous statements.

"I don't think that was a new proclamation," Kelley said. "They came to a compromise, and he said he would support the compromise at that time, and he has maintained that throughout."

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday was not surprised by the governor's recent comments. Sears said the governor's administration took part in negotiating the bill brought up in the veto session, along with himself and Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

"The Senate passed a bill during the veto session. The House Republicans refused to take it up," Sears said. "Rep. Grad and I worked very hard with the governor's office to come to an agreement — we did. The governor is committed to that bill."

Sears said where it goes from here is largely up to the House.

"The bill languishes there and will be taken up in the beginning of January," he said. "I'm not sure what the House is going to do."

Grad could not immediately be reached Wednesday for comment.

Colchester Police Chief Jennifer Morrison, president of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, said Wednesday that her organization continues to take a "not yet" approach to the legalization of marijuana.

"We hope that the governor will consider all of the information that the association has provided to him," she said. "We are very confident that Vermont is not ready for further liberalization or legalization of marijuana."

Eli Harrington, co-founder of Heady Vermont, a website that provides updates on marijuana-related policies and guidance on advocating for policy change, said Wednesday that he's "cautiously optimistic" after hearing the governor's recent remarks.

"I think that when it comes to Gov. Scott on the issue, the proof is in the pudding. The actions speak louder than words," Harrington said. "Gov. Scott's actions have not been previously engaging in these topics — really a `my way or the highway' approach."

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