PUTNEY—After 13 years in the state Legislature, Windham County Sen. Jeanette White is fine with the fact that her name has become synonymous with marijuana-decriminalization efforts in Vermont.
But as lawmakers prepare to tackle pot legalization in the 2016 session, the Putney Democrat wants to make a few things clear.
First, she wants a serious debate — meaning she’d like to be spared “silly” jokes about brownies and munchies.
Second, White said she doesn’t smoke marijuana and isn’t pushing a personal or financial agenda. Rather, she sees legalization as a policy issue — one that she believes is a logical extension of work done by the Legislature over the past 11 years.
“For some reason, I’ve sort of gained this reputation as kind of the ‘pot queen,’” White said with a laugh. “A lot of people think I must be stoned all the time. But it isn’t an issue for me personally.”
“What I’m finding is that a lot of people who support legalization don’t even smoke it,” she added. “Some never have. Some did and now don’t do it anymore because they’ve grown up. But I think it is an issue of what we choose to make a crime and what we don’t.”
A pot-legalization bill that bears White’s name may be considered early in the 2016 session; it seeks to allow Vermonters age 21 and up to “possess and cultivate limited amounts of cannabis for personal use.”
It is not the only marijuana bill that’s been proposed, but White says it is the result of 40 to 50 hours of testimony taken earlier this year by the Senate Government Operations Committee, which she chairs.
A long road to the current bill
White is also eager to trace the current regulatory discussion back much further than the last session. Vermont lawmakers approved medical marijuana in 2004, her second year in the Senate, and White says she supported the measure while acknowledging that she played only a little role in it.
Instead, White had her eyes on a larger goal.
She says she was an early proponent of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. Early in her legislative career, White introduced such a bill without much support from her colleagues.
White recalled showing up for a hearing on the matter, noting a big crowd packed into Room 11 at the Statehouse.
“I looked around and I said, ‘Oh my God. This bill is so dead, because all of these people are going to be opposed to it,’” she said. “And people got up one after another and started talking, and with one exception, they were all in favor of decriminalization.”
Among the issues discussed at that meeting, White said, was the long-term consequences of a marijuana conviction, including possible limitations on employment, housing, and student loans.
White also remembers an elderly man comparing his taste for a few martinis with his neighbor’s proclivity for a joint. He wondered, what’s the difference?
Though that bill didn’t pass, White said such testimony “made me realize that I had to be more serious about this.”
In the years that followed, White pushed for decriminalization several more times. When a measure imposing civil penalties for small amounts of the drug finally was approved in 2013, “I wasn’t even on the bill,” she said.
But she pushed for its passage, and White now is drawing a straight line from the Legislature’s incremental policy changes — medical marijuana in 2004, a dispensary system in 2011, and decriminalization two years later — to legalization.
“What we found was that the sky didn’t fall in. We have decriminalized the penalties. We have dispensaries,” White said. “We don’t have added crime. [...] [C]learly, it seems to me the next step is taking it out of the legal system entirely. And that’s what this is attempting to do.”
In making her argument, she is interested in the currently codified distinctions between alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana.
“We know that alcohol isn’t good for you. We know that tobacco isn’t good for you. We know marijuana isn’t good for you,” White said. “But what we’ve done is, we’ve said, ’OK, those people who embrace this bad thing are just fine. And those people who embrace this bad thing are going to be criminals. And it doesn’t make any sense to me from a civil-rights perspective that we’ve done that.”
Regulating and taxing marijuana, as the state does with alcohol and tobacco, could be a big money-maker for the cash-strapped state. But White adamantly says that’s not the rationale for her legalization push.
“I don’t think that’s the reason to do it,” White said. “I think that, even if it’s a break-even proposition, the [main] reason to do it is that prohibition doesn’t work. I think it should be a choice of consenting adults.”
White also believes that marijuana legalization, via a state regulatory system, would be a better way to keep pot out of the hands of minors.
“I believe, and I have heard this from a number of kids, that it is far easier for them to get marijuana than to get alcohol or cigarettes,” White said. “And part of the reason for that is because we regulate [those products].”
Some reservations from other senators
Not everyone is convinced of that, including Windham County’s other senator, Brattleboro Democrat Becca Balint.
After talking with those on both sides of the debate and conducting her own research, Balint’s conclusion is that more work must be done to ensure that young people — particularly adolescents at higher risk for drug abuse — are protected.
“I want to make sure that we are thinking about prevention in a targeted way,” Balint said.
She also wants further education on issues such as the impacts of marijuana on pregnancy, and ways to keep the drug out of children’s hands at home.
“If we can craft a bill that I feel is really protecting the most vulnerable in Vermont, and we’re not doing it for an economic boom, then I will get behind it,” Balint said.
Sen. John Campbell, a Windsor County Democrat who serves as the Senate’s president pro tem, has his own reservations about legalizing pot in Vermont. As an attorney, Campbell is focused mostly on legal issues that he believes have not been “fully vetted,” including enforcement for impaired drivers.
Campbell also is leery of money driving the pot debate. “I do believe that [White] is doing it for philosophical reasons,” Campbell said. “But a majority of people are looking to do it for purely financial reasons.”
“If we’re going to legalize a substance that we know has mind-altering effects, then we should make sure that every T is crossed and every I is dotted,” he added.
“The one thing I will say about Jeanette is, she has done everything she can to answer those questions,” Campbell said.
White points out that her Government Operations Committee spent Friday afternoons during the 2015 session taking marijuana testimony from a variety of witnesses including those from the prevention community.
“It was really interesting,” she said. “I have to say there were times when I couldn’t get my committee to go home on a Friday afternoon.”
At least one other member of the committee — Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia/Orange — is a vocal proponent of marijuana legalization and has signed onto White’s bill.
Toward the end of the session, committee members put the results of their work online and urged public comment, which poured in throughout the summer and fall, White said.
It was, she says, a “strange way” to craft a bill. But she’s hoping the work has been helpful in laying a firm foundation for legalization.
For example, she said the spring debate kept marijuana edibles, which would have been a flash point for controversy, out of the proposed bill.
White acknowledges, however, that her committee’s inquiry had a clear starting point — how legalization should happen, not whether it should happen. That’s because White believes the time has come to pursue the matter.
“[Legalization] may not happen this year. I’m hoping it happens this year,” White added. “But I feel that it’s good that we’re finally having the discussion out in the open. We’re finally addressing it.”