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Windham Democrats back pot bill

County committee votes to support legalization and to join Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, a move meant to ‘send a message’ as the House considers legislation

BRATTLEBORO—While the fate of a marijuana-legalization bill remains unclear in the Statehouse, Windham County’s Democratic leaders have left no doubt about where they stand.

The county committee has voted to support legalization and also to join the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana as the second Democratic committee in the state to join its ranks.

County committee Chairman Brandon Batham said he pushed for a vote on marijuana legalization because “on issues like this, Windham County Democrats can’t afford to shy away.”

“It’s a stepping stone for us to send a message both to the state party and to our legislators that we’re serious about this issue and we have their back if they vote for legalization and regulation,” Batham said.

By a 17–12 vote, the state Senate in February approved S.241, a bill that legalizes possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for recreational use. The legislation also allows for licensed growers and retailers.

Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, previously had voted against the bill but decided to support it after the measure was amended to allow for smaller-scale growing licenses.

The county’s other senator, Putney Democrat Jeanette White, is a longtime and staunch supporter of legalization.

That support illustrates one reason why Batham believes the county committee’s vote shouldn’t be a surprise.

“I think Windham County has always been on the forefront, and this isn’t a new issue for us,” he said. “We’ve elected a state senator for the past 14 years who is vocally leading on this. So we’re not scared of that.”

Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark also has said he backs legalization. That’s not a common sentiment among police in Vermont, as several prominent law-enforcement groups have cited public safety concerns associated with loosening pot laws.

But Batham argues that marijuana should be legalized because “the drug’s already out there, and what we need to do as a state is to stop the black market in marijuana.”

A short resolution

At the March 14 Windham County Democratic Committee meeting in Brattleboro, Batham presented a short resolution supporting “the ongoing initiative in the Vermont Legislature to legalize and regulate marijuana for adult use.”

After approximately 45 minutes of debate, Batham said, the vote was 12 in favor of legalization and four opposed.

Among those supporting the measure was state Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro.

“I am in favor of a regulated environment [for marijuana],” Toleno said last week. “I think it’s indisputable that the prohibition law for all drugs is a failure. I would be more interested in providing a regulated market.”

Toleno said he sees room for improvement in S.241 as it was sent to the House.

For example, he wouldn’t mind seeing a “small home-grow option” as well as alternative retail models. But he also said he wants to see the bill pass the Legislature during this session and would support it without such expansions.

“We’ve done a lot of work on this up until now,” Toleno said. “I would rather build off that work incrementally and not miss this moment.”

Committee signs on with coalition

The Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana — self-described as “a coalition of Vermont organizations and individuals who believe it is time to end the prohibition of marijuana in Vermont” — also is pushing in that direction, with a long list of political, legal, religious, and business representatives who have joined the organization’s cause.

In addition to the Windham County Democrats, the Washington County Democratic Committee supports the coalition.

“Washington and Windham are the only two county committees who have done this. They are also the only two to have considered such a resolution thus far,” said Laura Subin, the coalition’s director, who added that she expects similar resolutions from the Democratic committees of Chittenden and Bennington counties next month.

“I am in dialogue about the issue with the chairs of the committees in a number of other counties,” Subin said.

The Vermont Democratic Party has not taken a position on marijuana, Executive Director Conor Casey said. But he added that “perhaps the issue could come up as we take up our platform at the May convention.”

Governor’s support

In the meantime, some say S.241 will face a stiff challenge in the House. Toleno said he senses skepticism among some colleagues, though he noted that House members have not yet spent much time with the bill.

Batham said he believes that Governor Peter Shumlin’s continued lobbying for approval of S.241 could help push the bill through the Legislature.

“I think it’s worth noting that this bill has gotten as far as it has gotten because the governor has made it clear to the public and his allies in the Statehouse that he wants this passed,” Batham said. “And that’s certainly not a small thing.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #350 (Wednesday, March 30, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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