By [email protected]/Vermont News
MONTPELIER — The Vermont House advanced a marijuana dispensary bill Wednesday that includes a study on the revenue effects of legalizing the drug. The House version, passed on a voice vote, stripped the expansion to six dispensaries that was passed in the Senate. The House would keep the number at the current four. Rep. Thomas Burditt, R-West Rutland, who reported the bill on the House floor for the Human Services Committee, said the House version would remove a 1,000-person cap that exists at current medical marijuana dispensaries. However, the committee “thought it was too early to add more dispensaries at this time,” Burditt said. Additionally, the House version would remove the existing requirement that a patient have a six-month relationship with a doctor before receiving a medical marijuana card for those with terminal illnesses. Rep. Michael Mrowicki, D-Putney, a member of the Human Services Committee, said the House version includes a study of medical marijuana as treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The committee considered adding PTSD as an ailment that could be treated in Vermont with medical marijuana, but opted for the study instead. “We thought a fair next step would be … for the Department of Health to look at what’s out there for treatment of PTSD and if there’s research on marijuana,” he said. The House version also paves the way for the use of a strain of cannabis known as Charlotte’s Web. It is low in THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, but has been found effective in treating seizures. Rep. Lynn Batchelor, R-Derby Line, said the Human Services Committee heard testimony from one Vermont mother who moved to Colorado so her daughter could have access to the strain. Most of Wednesday’s debate centered on an amendment introduced by the House Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, speaking on behalf of the committee, said the amendment requires the secretary of administration to study the revenue impact if the state legalized and taxed marijuana. Ram said the state can learn from Washington and Colorado, which have already legalized the drug and enacted taxes to raise revenue. A similar amendment sponsored by more than 50 House members was defeated earlier this year when Speaker Shap Smith ruled that it was not germane to a miscellaneous tax bill. The amendment fared better this time after it was challenged by Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, who argued that it should not be added “at the last minute” without going through the regular committee process. Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, acting as speaker, ruled that it was germane to the dispensary bill. “The underlying bill addresses marijuana and the issue of marijuana,” he said. A motion by Browning to recommit the bill to the Human Services Committee was defeated on a 108-32 vote. The House then approved the amendment on a 87-52 vote. The Human Services Committee took no position on the tax study, Burditt said. But plenty of lawmakers had a strong opinion. Rep. Ronald Hubert, R-Milton, said he worried the state may be violating the federal government’s RICO law, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, by raising revenue from a drug that remains illegal under federal law. “We don’t know whether we are going to be in violation of federal laws,” he said. While the legislation does not commit the state to legalizing marijuana, Rep. Doug Gage, R-Rutland, said by backing the amendment Vermont is “going down a very different avenue with this amendment.” And Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, said a formal study of the tax implications “sends a message to Vermonters” that the Legislature favors moving forward with legalizing marijuana. On the other hand, Rep. Chris Pearson, a Progressive, said lawmakers should learn as much as they can. “We should, in fact, embrace the idea that the Vermont Legislature looks at issues with as much information on the table as possible,” he said. The bill is expected to be up for final approval in the House today.