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Vermont Weed Appropriations Committee
(Photo: Glenn Russell/Free Press)

MONTPELIER – A bill to legalize small amounts of recreational marijuana in Vermont narrowly passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday, clearing the way for a vote by the full Senate.

The committee dealt mainly with money issues. Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, said it wasn’t the Appropriations Committee’s job to make policy changes. The bill makes a few tweaks to what passed out of Judiciary and Finance, including adding a zero-tolerance policy for drivers of commercial vehicles found to have marijuana in their systems and specifying that employers don’t have to accommodate marijuana possession and use while at work.

Three senators voted against the bill. Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Windsor, Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, and Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, all voted no. Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, both voted yes and said they support legalization. Kitchel and Sen. Diane Snelling, R- Chittenden, both voted yes in order to advance the bill.

Snelling said she would be a “definite no” on the Senate floor, but wanted to let the full Senate debate the issue to “honor the process.”

Kitchel said she had yet to made up her mind.

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“It comes down to the issue of public health and public safety,” she said, adding she would make up her mind sometime before the floor vote.

Retail marijuana operations would not be running until 2018, but government agencies like the Tax Department and Department of Health would need to begin building an infrastructure to implement the bill before marijuana tax revenue would come in. Much of the discussion in the committee was about how to fund those needs before full implementation began.

“This is a form of loaning money,” Kitchel said.

Campbell called the funding “deficit spending.”

“I don’t like that concept to begin with,” he said.

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The bill will go to the Senate floor later this week. Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, one of the sponsors of the bill, said he expects the bill to narrowly pass the Senate.

“In the end this is a cultural change, and people walk very slowly through cultural change,” Benning said on Monday. He came to the Statehouse to watch the vote.

Before the vote, Sears said he thought it was unlikely that marijuana legalization would come up again if it fails this year. He is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which spent the first few weeks of the session focused on drafting the bill.

“It’s a pretty heavy lift to push a bill like this through,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think a new governor would make legalization a priority if it fails.

Gov. Peter Shumlin praised the vote, calling the Senate’s process an example of a thoughtful debate. He called for legalization in his State of the State address earlier this year.

“The Senate has asked the right questions, explored the lessons learned from other states that have gone before us, and crafted a cautious, step-by-step approach that I believe will result in a smarter policy towards marijuana in Vermont.”

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