Vermont House passes bill to legalize pot

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Despite new federal uncertainty, lawmakers in the Vermont House have passed a bill to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. The bill passed on a vote of 81-63. It now heads back to the Senate, where it is expected to pass. And Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, has said he will sign it.

Our Tyler Dumont was in the Statehouse all day where lawmakers spent hours debating the bill.

"It feels to me a little bit like deja vu," said Rep. Charles Conquest, D-Wells River.

Inside the Vermont House, legislators were back to a discussion over legal pot, spending hours on the matter beginning early Thursday and stretching into the early evening.

"This legalization bill will result in more use of cannabis, and it may result in more impaired drivers under the influence of cannabis," said Rep. Cynthia Brownington, D-Arlington.

The bill in front of House members is similar to legislation that passed both chambers in the Statehouse last summer. It would allow for adults to possess under an ounce of marijuana, and the growth of two mature or four immature pot plants. But a veto from the governor over concerns about use by minors and highway safety pushed the bill back until this session. The bill was redrafted to meet the governor's concerns, and he's on record saying he will sign it if it reaches his desk in the current form.

But many in the governor's own party are not convinced. They offered multiple amendments Thursday that were beaten back, including waiting for the release of a progress report of the Governor's Marijuana Advisory Commission later this month.

"Bottom line, I don't want Vermonters to lose with me. I want us to vote on this, tax and regulate it, and move on," said House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton.

"I make a motion that we delay action on H. 511 until January 18, 2018," said Rep. Brian Savage, R-Swanton.

A push for delaying legalization until police officers have a field testing device to measure impairment also failed.

"It's leaving things undone. It's the Scarlett O'Hara approach to legislation-- we'll figure that out tomorrow. You are not protecting the safety of the traveling public," Rep. Brownington said.

Leaders in the Senate Judiciary Committee say they'll review the amendments mid next week before sending it to the Senate floor for a vote. The governor has said he would sign the bill if it's passed as presented. Thursday, Vermont law enforcement organizations expressed disappointment in the governor's willingness to do that.

If Vermont does legalize recreational pot, it could face challenges from the federal government. Sources close to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he plans to go after legalized marijuana.

Pot is still illegal under federal law. Sessions has compared marijuana to heroin and blamed it for spikes in violence.

Vermont lawmakers told us they aren't sure what the move means for them.

"I'm not sure how much it will affect us. It might affect our medical marijuana, which would be a bigger concern because that is where the state is regulating and the state is allowing the sale of it," said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County.

Our Kyle Midura has followed this issue for years in Vermont. Thursday, he was in Washington where he found out what it means for us on the federal level.

The decision from the country's top prosecutor jeopardizes legal marijuana's future across the country, and in Vermont, even if the Legislature votes down the proposal currently under debate.

The Obama administration restricted federal prosecutors, setting guidelines for a case, like sales to children or when gangs got involved. Sessions on Thursday wrote a memo eliminating those rules, noting prosecutors can use their judgment.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy said prosecutors should be focused on illegal weapons, Russian election interference, and the opioid crisis.

"We don't have enough federal resources to go after those things, but we're going to go after somebody buying pot, legally, in their state? Give me a break," said Leahy, D-Vermont.

Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill do support the change.

Recreational marijuana businesses are immediately exposed to prosecution. Medical marijuana dispensaries and their patients are not but could be in a couple of weeks.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, issued a statement slamming the move, writing in part, "We should allow states the right to move toward the decriminalization of marijuana, not reverse the progress that has been made in recent years."

And Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, said in a statement, "The federal government should defer to the states on this issue and use its limited law enforcement resources elsewhere.

The U.S. attorney for Vermont, Christina Nolan, suggested she will keep following the guidelines during the Obama administration.

"Top priority of mine and across the country is to reduce drug-related violence... and so a marijuana case, heroin case, and a case that commits violence and guns will be a consideration we use to bring prosecution," Nolan said.

Medical dispensaries and patents are protected by law, not just these memos. But that could change. That legal protection is built into the budget set to expire in two weeks. Sen. Leahy says he expects it to be renewed.

But the credit union that does all the banking for Vermont's dispensaries, VSECU, tells us they will be watching that measure closely because if it goes away, they could be at risk, too.