Public hearings held on marijuana legalization in southern Vermo - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Public hearings held on marijuana legalization in southern Vermont

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Bennington sits along the borders with Massachusetts and New York, but it began the day at the center of the Vermont's most high-profile debate.

Lawmakers weighing whether to make recreational marijuana legal kicked off a series of public hearings around the state. 

On the holiday for the country's most-celebrated civil rights leader, Vermont lawmakers took testimony on the social issue of the legislative session: whether to legalize recreational marijuana.

"I'm dead set against any attempt to legalize marijuana," said Arthur Peterson, Bennington.

"We decriminalized a small amount of marijuana, I think that was reasonable," said Robert Block, Bennington.

"I am for legalizing marijuana and there are many reasons for that," said Mary-Jane Sarvis, Shaftsbury.

Public testimony began Monday afternoon in Bennington, with hearings in Brattleboro and Springfield scheduled later in the day.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington County says Vermont has not, and will not rush pot.

"We have taken a measured approach in the past and we'll continue to do so exploring the appropriate state response to the personal use of marijuana by adults," said Sears.

Southwestern Vermonters who spoke expressed strong opinions pro and con with approximately equal speaking time.

Both sides contend the facts favor their argument.

Advocates argue legalizing will pull a black market into the light, generating plenty of green for a state budget in the red.

"The current policy of prohibition has failed," said Ben Simpson, Bennington. It's going to be easier for them to get than it is now.

Opponents see the potential to increase problems with stoned driving, and send a mixed drug message in a community already struggling to win its battle with opiate addiction.

"And that those negative impacts will be disproportionately centered on some of Vermont's most vulnerable individuals," said Kurt White, Newfane. 

Proponents counter by arguing the state already deals with stoned drivers, and regulates more dangerous drugs: like cigarettes and alcohol.

"Every year kills nearly half a million people, but we're OK with that," said Dave Crowley, Bennington.

The father of the state's youngest medical marijuana patient argued against rushing a recreational program, but says he'll support it if it means an expanded medical access.

"I am for it because we need to have access to our medical necessities here in the state of Vermont," said Keith Rowe, said Keith Rowe, Bennington.  

Polling shows Vermonters support the concept of legal pot, as does Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont.

But the details are sticky from handling tax rates to pot lounges and any delay getting the bill through the Senate is likely to burn out chances of passage.

Sears wants his committee to vote on the measure January 29th may provide an early indication of its chances.

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