Reps, selectboard split on marijuana debate

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(Stock photo)

A bill legalizing the use of marijuana in Vermont has divided Colchester legislators and selectboard members.

Rep. Jim Condon (D) was the only member of the Colchester delegation to vote in favor of the measure, which cleared the House 79 to 66 on Wednesday, May 10. Rep. Pat Brennan (R), Rep. Maureen Dakin (D) and Rep. Curt Taylor (D) all voted no.

The legislation allows people age 21 and older to possess one ounce or less of marijuana and two mature marijuana plants, while “retaining criminal penalties” for those who have or dispense and sell larger quantities.

People under age 21 caught with the drug would be subject to the same punishments as those possessing alcohol underage.

The bill, which first passed the Senate, now heads to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.

“I’m anxious to see the governor exercise his power of veto,” Colchester Police Chief Jennifer Morrison said after the measure cleared the legislature. “I thought it was going to be a close vote, but I wasn’t sure which way it was going to go … I had hoped it would go the other.”

Morrison has repeatedly expressed opposition to legalization, most recently asking members of the Colchester Selectboard to send a resolution to the State House indicating their disapproval.

In five points, the statement details reasons not to legalize, pointing to the statewide “opiate abuse crisis,” lack of a roadside test for marijuana impairment for drivers operating erratically and the strong opposition from law enforcement officials.

The document also says legalization would have “no appreciable benefit to the criminal justice system” and that the state would be best served by “waiting and watching” the impact legalization has on other states.

“Vermont markets itself as a wholesome vacation destination known for maple syrup, ski and outdoor destinations, Lake Champlain and other attractions,” the resolution continues. “Marijuana tourism is not compatible with this image.”

Vice-chairman Tom Mulcahy quickly expressed support for the measure and was joined by board clerk Jeff Bartley.

“We’re not saying not never; we’re saying not now,” Bartley said, referencing an earlier statement made by Morrison.

He acknowledged his own position as chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, adding he’s personally in favor of legalization – just not now.

“It is in our purview to look out for the residents of Colchester and our police chiefs and medical professionals,” he said.

But selectman Herb Downing dissented, saying he disagreed with “just about everything in the resolution.” He believes marijuana should be legalized.

“I liken the situation to the repeal of prohibition,” Downing said. “It should be made legal, heavily regulated, heavily taxed. That’s the best way to control it and keep it out of our schools.”

Downing added he doesn’t believe it’s within the local board’s authority to take up the matter at all.

“It’s inappropriate for this board to adopt a resolution such as this,” Downing said. “This is an issue that should be decided in the legislature, not in our little selectboard.”

The newest member of the board, Jacki Murphy, agreed with Downing. She said she understood Morrison’s position but was still in favor of legalization.

The item was tabled at the April 25 selectboard meeting after members realized they were deadlocked. When the full five-person board returned at the May 9 meeting, board chairwoman Nadine Scibek voted in favor of the resolution, breaking the tie.

The board approved a similar resolution by a 4 to 1 vote last year, when the legislature once appeared ready to pass a legalization bill that ultimately failed. Downing disagreed then, too, saying there was no reason to delay.

At press time, Scott had not acted on  the bill.