A ‘Half-Step’ Toward Marijuana Legalization

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Last week’s election energized supporters of marijuana legalization, with Colorado and Washington voters legalizing the drug in their states. In Burlington, voters passed a non-binding­ referendum with 70 percent of the vote in favor of legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis and hemp.

"I think what Tuesday night signals is that the people themselves are way out ahead of the political class," says Albert Petrarca, a spokesman for BTV-Green, the group behind the Burlington ballot item. "If the people are ready for legalization regulation and taxation, why should we settle for any lesser reforms?" argues Petrarca. "All of the other reforms – decrim, medicinal – are now a day late and dollar short."

Senator Joe Benning is sympathetic but he says his Statehouse colleagues aren’t ready for a debate over legalization. "I think in order to convince them that it’s really going to be ok, we need to take the half-step and decriminalize," says Benning. "I’m not sure there is enough support in the building at this point for outright legalization."

One consistent voice of Statehouse opposition has been House Speaker Shap Smith. He told reporters on Wednesday that he still opposes decriminalization but that it will get a full hearing in committee in time for it get to the floor. 

Part of that discussion will include the perspective of law enforcement. Officers have expressed concerns ranging from enforcement to assessing a driver’s impairment. "Everything from highway safety to the criminal element coming in knowing they now have a market for their product in a state that may not have all the controls it needs, "says Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark. "But I’m willing and I know some of the other sheriffs are willing to at least sit at the table and say, ‘these are some of our concerns.’"

Backers of decriminalization say they’ll have bills ready to introduce in the House and Senate at the start of the Legislative session in January. As for the legalization effort, advocates are hoping to have non-binding resolutions on town meeting warnings in March.

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