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December 19, 2012

Zuckerman, Other Lawmakers to Introduce Marijuana Legalization Bill

David Zuckerman

Could Vermont follow the lead of Colorado and Washington and legalize marijuana?

Don't bet the stash on it. But a handful of lawmakers — including senator-elect David Zuckerman (pictured) — is drafting legislation for the upcoming session to legalize, tax and regulate the green stuff.

Pot reformers in Montpelier have been focused on a more incremental step: decriminalizing marijuana possession in Vermont. But advocates like Zuckerman see the recent votes in Washington and Colorado as giving momentum for legalization — or at least a conversation about it.

Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat representing Chittenden County, said he's asked legislative council to draft a legalization bill and was told by the legislature's lawyers that "a handful" of other lawmakers had made the same request. Rep. Susan Hatch Davis (P/D-Washington) is one of them, according to Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), leader of the House Progressive caucus. The others are unknown because the bill-drafting process is confidential.

Zuckerman doesn't expect legalization — which he prefers to call "regulation and taxation" — to pass this year. But he says it deserves to be part of the broader discussion over drug policy. Employing an agricultural metaphor, the Hinesburg farmer compares his effort to planting seeds that will bear fruit down the line.

"I do think this is a policy whose day will come," the pony-tailed Prog-Dem says. "Whether it's one year from now or four years from now, I don't know. But I don't think it's something that's 10 years out. I think the tide is shifting."

Chris PearsonPearson (pictured), a main mover behind the decrim bill, says he will not push for legalization this year. He says legalization would be a heavier lift in Vermont, which, unlike Colorado and Washington, can't make laws by voter referendum.

"It's one thing for citizens in a referendum to thumb their nose at federal law," he says. "It's a lot different for the legislature to knowingly, openly disregard federal law."

That said, Pearson says he's encouraged at last week's news that U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy will convene a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to press White House officials on how they intend to respond to two states' legalization of a drug that's banned under federal law.

Pearson believes decriminalization will pass the legislature this year and suggests lawmakers could attach a "rider" to that bill that says something like "the moment the feds figure out how they're handling Washington and Colorado, we begin a trigger ... that would allow us to legalize."

Surveys show Vermonters favor softening penalties for pot possession. Sen. Bill Doyle's 2012 Town Meeting survey found majority support for legalizing — not decriminalizing — pot possession. Of the 12,300 people from 148 towns who completed surveys, 49 percent said they favor legalizing possession of less than two ounces, while 40 percent said they opposed it and 11 percent were unsure.

A February 2012 robo-poll in Vermont by Public Policy Polling found that 63 percent of respondents backed lowering penalties for possession of less than an ounce from a $500 fine and up to six months in jail, to $150 and no jail time. And in November, Burlington residents voted overwhelming — 70 percent — in favor of a nonbinding resolution supporting legalization.

Gov. Peter Shumlin supports decriminalizing marijuana, but the legislation was held up last session by House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville), who opposes decriminalization. Smith has since said he will not block the bill from consideration, though he's awaiting information requested about how decriminalization has worked in other states.

But legalization still faces long odds. Asked where he stands on legalizing marijuana, Smith replies, "Let's take it one step at a time. I think there are some real questions about what the feds are going to do in regards to legalization efforts in Colorado and Washington, and I don't think there's a real need to have a huge fight with federal law enforcement on the issue."

But would Smith block legalization — as he did before with decrim? "I'm certainly not supportive of the idea of doing legalization this year, and my preference would be not to bring that to the floor," he answers, before adding, "But I would want to confer with people from the various caucuses and talk to committee leadership."

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