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Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, has been a strong supporter of legalizing marijuana in Vermont.

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Senator disappointed by defeat of marijuana bill

Jeanette White, who has pushed to change pot laws throughout her legislative career, says she doesn't know whether she will introduce another legalization bill if she is elected to an eighth term

PUTNEY—Several days after the end of the 2016 legislative session, Windham County Sen. Jeanette White still sounded tired.

That’s no doubt due to the normal wear and tear of the session’s frantic final debates and deliberations. But the Putney Democrat also acknowledged deep disappointment about the failure of one of her key causes — marijuana legalization.

White is seeking an eighth term in this year’s elections. But if she returns to Montpelier, she’s no longer sure she wants to lead the charge by introducing another legalization bill like S.241, which met its end due to opposition in the state House.

“I don’t know,” White said. “Part of me says, ‘Yes,’ and part of me says, ‘Why would we want to go through all that again?’”

“I think that an issue like this, that’s so emotionally charged, it’s hard to bring it up two years in a row,” she added.

Earlier this year, it seemed like a 2017 marijuana debate might not be necessary.

As approved by the Senate in February, S.241 would have legalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use by those age 21 and older. It also provided for creation of a state-regulated cultivation and retail system.

The bill was introduced in January, with White and Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia/Orange, listed as sponsors. But some of the legislative groundwork had been laid earlier, as White’s Government Operations Committee spent Friday afternoons during the 2015 session taking many hours of marijuana testimony.

It has been an important issue for White for more than a decade: Citing state regulation of tobacco and alcohol use, White has argued that it “doesn’t make any sense to me from a civil-rights perspective” that marijuana is illegal.

She believes outright legalization is the “next step” in a state that has already created a medical-marijuana and dispensary system and, in 2013, switched from criminal to civil penalties for possession of small amounts of pot.

But it turned out that the state House wasn’t ready to take that step. S.241 initially stalled in the House committee process; then, on May 3, representatives resoundingly voted down the bill’s legalization language.

Subsequent pot proposals also failed to gain the full Legislature’s approval before the 2016 session ended May 6. At this point, legislative leaders say only that they expect to continue the marijuana discussion during special hearings later this year.

The results left White shaking her head. She believes S.241 was misunderstood, and she complains of inaccurate invocations of corporate influence or pot monopolies.

“My belief is that most of the [opponents] had never read it and didn’t know what was in it,” White said.

“I spent 20 minutes or a half hour listening to the [House] floor debate at the end, and people didn’t know what they were voting on,” she added. “It was very unclear, and there was a lot of confusion.”

White also cited staunch opposition from law enforcement organizations as a key factor in the demise of S.241.

“Whether it was intended or not, the presence of uniformed police officers who were opposed seemed a bit intimidating,” White said.

But some say the House’s 121-28 vote against S.241’s legalization language was the product of real reservations about the bill — not last-minute lobbying or confusion. In Windham County, where the Democratic Committee publicly supported legalization, seven of 12 representatives opposed the bill as it had been fashioned by the Senate.

“I think people knew what they were voting on. I certainly did,” said Rep. Oliver Olsen, I-Londonderry.

Olsen said he isn’t necessarily opposed to legalizing pot. But he found S.241 to be “unwieldy,” and he added that “there was concern that it created this corporate market that was going to be controlled by a relatively small number of licensees.”

That was also a concern for Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster.

“I know Jeanette and the Senate worked very hard on this,” Deen said. But he said he couldn’t support a bill that forced growers to navigate “the bureaucracy and the business-model approach to decriminalization.”

Both Deen and Olsen supported the House’s failed attempt to expand decriminalization to allow for two homegrown plants. But they say outright legalization requires a different approach than the one offered by S.241.

“I think further decriminalization and ultimately some form of legalization is really an inevitability,” Olsen said. “The question is, how do we get this right?”

Both Olsen and White are glad that a last-minute push for a voter referendum on pot legalization failed. White said a referendum lacks the care, clarity, and legal force of legislation.

White also isn’t in favor of creating a commission to further study the issue, as had been suggested by some in the House toward the end of the session. The veteran senator believes Vermont marijuana legalization “will happen at some point,” but not necessarily because an advisory group says it should.

“I don’t know why we would want yet another commission to study why it should be legal,” White said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #357 (Wednesday, May 18, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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