Joint Legislative Committee Gets 2017 Marijuana Policy Talk Rolling in Montpelier

Members of the public listen during the Montpelier Statehouse public hearings on S.241 on Thursday, March 31 2016. by Monica Donovan for Heady Vermont.
Members of the public listen during the Montpelier Statehouse public hearings on S.241 on Thursday, March 31 2016. by Monica Donovan for Heady Vermont.
Heady Vermont Staff 8 Sep 2016
Members of the public listen during the Montpelier Statehouse public hearings on S.241 on Thursday, March 31 2016. by Monica Donovan for Heady Vermont.
Members of the public listen during the Montpelier Statehouse public hearings on S.241 on Thursday, March 31 2016. by Monica Donovan for Heady Vermont.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Despite significant updates to the medical marijuana law that could potentially double the number of patients in Vermont, the 2016 legislative session largely left cannabis reform advocates feeling burned. Even with elections sure to shake up the ranks, on Monday, September 12, a powerful legislative committee comprised of 10 Vermont legislators will host the first of their six committee meetings focused specifically on marijuana reform issues.

However disappointed legalization advocates were in 2016, the fact that Senator Dick Sears (D-Bennington) — who emerged as a very unlikely, but important cannabis reform champion in 2015 — and fellow legislative leaders elected to pass on grass, the lawmakers did promise to dedicate committee time to the issue in the summer and fall (as reported by VTDigger’s Elizabeth Hewitt back in May).

With actual policy taking a backseat to politics during the summer of an election year, some have been wondering if this legislative committee — formerly the Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee — would actually meet and discuss a potentially prickly political issue, especially when some are running for re-election. And if they did meet, what would those discussions entail and to what end?

Senator Sears speaks to VT Media Following Legalization Defeat in House - May 2016
Senator Sears speaks to Vermont media following legalization defeat in the Vermont House in May of 2016

On Wednesday, the Bennington Banner ended the speculation and affirmed the promises of the legislative leaders that the initial meeting would happen on 9/12, which Heady Vermont has independently confirmed, along with the dates for all committee meetings (see below).

Overall, the purpose of the joint committee meeting — besides making easy puns for cannabis writers — is to get the legislative power brokers on the same page and receiving the same information. New England Field Director Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project agrees that it’s important for politicians to have the same information and start creating parameters:

I see people online complaining that they should just stop talking about it and just do it, but the reality of passing a bill through two chambers in the legislature and getting it signed by the Governor is that they need to agree on details, not just the blanket statement that marijuana should be legal. — Matt Simon, MPP

“It’s not as simple as flicking a light on, there are policy choices that need to be made within context of legalization, so obviously, the Senate and House did not agree on details this year,” says Simon. “We could have something like S.241 all over again, which would be a very difficult process, or they could do what they’re doing, which is exactly the right thing to do. They’re not going to call a special session to legalize marijuana, but they can start to talk through the details and focus on learning and building consensus and hopefully lead to a bill being introduced in January that the players in both chambers are already familiar with.”

Standing Room Only in House Judiciary Committee - 4/8/16
Vermont House Judiciary Committee discussing legalization in April 2016

Representative Sandy Haas, a progressive representative of the committee who represents Rochester, Bethel, Stockbridge, and Pittsfield, noted that there are many details still being worked out, but that part of the purpose of the structured testimony “will be to allow a larger number of legislative leaders to hear what the Senate heard.”

Representative Haas also noted that while this group of current Senators and Representatives will convene to start the discussions, it’s harder to gauge the specific chambers — especially the House — until after the elections in November. Haas herself noted that she believes that whatever happens, “we need to take it out of the hands of the black market.”

The members of the joint committee represent a range of political viewpoints and geographic districts, but include several legislative power-brokers and committee chairs: Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), Rep. Alice Emmons (D-Windsor), Sen. Tim Ashe (D-Chittenden), Sen. Dustin Degree (R-Franklin), Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland), Rep. Maxine Grad (D-Washington), Rep. Sandy Haas (P-Windsor-Rutland), Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Washington), Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) and Rep. Butch Shaw (R-Rutland).

Senator Tim Ashe (D-Chittenden), who co-sponsored decriminalization in 2013 and supported S.241 (with the caveat that “he would have supported a quicker move to homegrow if possible”), agreed that especially with the upcoming election, the meetings will help to get lawmakers on the same page, receiving the same testimony at the same time.

I think it can only improve the necessarily coordinated effort to make a change like this. There are going to be changes in executive branch and legislative leadership, those dynamics were complicated last year, but knowing that you’ve got a new Speaker, new Pro Tem President and new Governor, starting to get committee members together early can only be a positive. — Sen. Tim Ashe

The joint committee sessions will be open to the public; However, legislators and staff pointed out that only invited and scheduled speakers will have the opportunity to testify at these committee meetings. Legislators and legislative staff noted that there will almost certainly be more public forums for testimony in the future, although there are not yet dates set.

The first session on September 12 will include a mix of reviews and research from Vermont sources (Attorney General office, Legislative Council staff, and Crime Research group), as well as officials from other states, including staff from the Colorado Governor’s Office of Marijuana Coordination and the Director of the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Control Board.

pic via Drug Policy Alliance
Photo courtesy of Drug Policy Alliance

With the afternoon line-up, the committee will hear from representatives of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (including the Health Kids Colorado survey) and the Drug Policy Alliance Network. An invitation was also sent to Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Area, whose report has been oft-cited by opponents and even more oft-refuted and criticized by supporters (and members of the press) who believe that the report is inherently biased.

For updates from the committee meeting on Monday, follow @HeadyVermont on Twitter and Instagram and make sure to Like the Facebook Page.

Full Schedule:

Monday, September 12, 2016 | Vermont State House, Room 10 | 10:00AM

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday, October 14, 2016

Monday, October 17, 2016

Monday, October 24, 2016

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Details will continue to emerge as to the specific focus for each meeting, and will be posted on the Heady Vermont events pageVermont Cannabis: Heady Vermont Watermark

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