Vermont House agrees to legalize marijuana; bill to governor

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The state of Vermont is poised to join the expanding number of states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana with the Wednesday vote by the House of Representatives that will allow adults to possess and use a small amount of the drug beginning next year.

The legislation, which passed the House by a vote of 79 to 66, was identical to a bill passed last week by the Senate that also sets up a commission to study the best way to regulate marijuana. The legislation is set to become law July 1, 2018.

The bill is now headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Phil Scott. Spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley said Wednesday after the vote that the governor is not philosophically opposed to legalizing marijuana, but he must be sure it meets certain public safety and health questions.

“He’ll review the bill when received to determine if those questions are addressed,” she said.

Under the legislation, small amounts of marijuana would be legal to possess and grow starting in July 2018 for anyone over age 21. Larger amounts would remain illegal. Meanwhile a nine-member commission will develop a proposal to tax and regulate marijuana that will be presented to lawmakers next year.

Before Vermont’s vote, eight states and the District of Columbia had legalized the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana, including the adjoining state of Massachusetts and nearby Maine. The vote by Vermont lawmakers was the first to legalize marijuana separate from a voter initiative.

The hourlong debate before the vote featured impassioned comments by some lawmakers who felt legalizing marijuana would lead to increased substance abuse, car accidents and other unintended consequences.

“This is voting for trouble. We’ve got a lot of problems and this is only going to make it worse,” said Rep. Ben Joseph, a Democrat from North Hero.

But opponents’ arguments were countered by others who said that marijuana use is already prevalent in Vermont, passing it could give the state a say in its regulation, end the black market and possibly increase state revenues.

“What is changing is the landscape of our region,” said Rep. Ruqaiyah Morris, a Democrat from Bennington, whose home in southern Vermont is less than 10 miles from Massachusetts, where retail marijuana sales are due to begin in mid-2018.

“This is going to happen,” she said. “We can either be pro-active and be part of this conversation and ensure we are thinking about all these things, including some sort of a mechanism to address them or we can just take a wait-and-see approach and deal with it next year.”

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