The Vermont Senate gave final approval Thursday to a bill to legalize recreational marijuana, starting in 2018.
The measure picked up support when Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham County, who has opposed the bill during Wednesday's preliminary vote changed her mind.
The final vote was 17-12.
Balint said she decided to support S. 241 after the Senate restructured the number and size of permitted marijuana growing operations, reserving more licenses for small operators.
The small grower license fees would begin at $1,000, while larger growing operations will be required to obtain $25,000 licenses.
Under the legislation, Vermont regulators would begin issuing growing licenses in late 2017. Retail sales could begin as early as Jan. 2, 2018.
Vermont residents 21 and older would be able to purchase up to half an ounce of marijuana for personal use. Non-residents would be able to purchase a fourth of an ounce. It would be legal to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana.
The Senate rejected amendments Thursday to delay legalization implementation to 2019, but approved adding health warnings to marijuana packaging that would be similar to the warnings on cigarettes.
Home-grown marijuana and edible marijuana products would remain illegal under the current bill.
S. 241 now moves to the House of Representatives where the Judiciary Committee is expected to begin its review the week of March 14.
House Speaker Shap Smith said he generally favors moving to a tightly regulated system of marijuana sales but is not sure how many House members agree and he is making no predictions.
"Most people believe the policy we have in place now is not working," Smith said Thursday. "I think the question that has to be answered is will the alternative that's come over from the Senate address the areas where the policy isn't working now? Whether we can fix it this year is an open question."
Backers say S. 241 will drive illicit drug dealers out of the state because state-licensed and tested marijuana will be available legally to adults at a lower price.
Revenue from the 25 percent sales tax of recreational marijuana would be used for drug treatment centers and hiring additional law enforcement officers for highway patrols. .
The Senate bill would likely generate $30-40 million in new tax revenue annually, Sen. Dick Sears said Thursday.
A survey found 80,000 Vermonters now regularly use recreational marijuana, much of it purchased from black market drug dealers who often peddle harder drugs, too.
Gov. Peter Shumlin said he supports legalization and calls the Senate reform bill "a much smarter approach."
If the House concurs, Vermont would be the fifth state and the first in the northeast to legalize recreational marijuana.
by Stewart Ledbetter
February 26, 2016
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Legal Recreational Marijuana Clears Final Vermont Senate Hurdle