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A bill to tax and regulate marijuana in Vermont is heading to a vote before the full Senate in late February 2019 after clearing the latest in a string of committee victories Feb. 26.

Vermont became the first state in the U.S. to legalize marijuana in 2018 via legislative action, as opposed to by voters through a ballot measure. The law currently allows the possession of up to 1 ounce, or 28.35 grams, and the cultivation of two mature plants by adults. The state lacks a system to tax and regulate marijuana markets, however.

The specifics of how that system should be structured and operated has been the subject of discussion around two bills in the Legislature. H 196 has been backed by more than a third of the House's members and has been referred to the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs.

S 54 is a similar piece of legislation that would establish a Cannabis Control Board as the state's regulatory body for a legal marijuana market and set up five types of licenses for various businesses. If approved by lawmakers and signed into law, the board would form on July 1, 2019, with licenses for retailers set to be issued on or before April 1, 2021.

After previous approval in February 2019 in the Judiciary and Finance committees, the Senate Committee on Appropriations voted to advance the bill on Feb. 26. It now heads to the entire Senate floor, where a vote could come as early as Feb. 28.

A fiscal note issued by the Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office disclosed cost estimates for the board as well as anticipated revenues from the Senate Judiciary Committee's recommended 16 percent excise tax. Officials project a range of $3.8 million to $7.4 million in revenue in the first fiscal year and $8.6 million to $16.6 million by 2024.

For the recommended five-member Cannabis Control Board, the costs are estimated to be $860,000 in the 2020 fiscal year, $1,010,000 in 2021, and $940,000 in 2022.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who signed the state's existing noncommercial cannabis legalization law, has said he would only consider approving legislation to tax and regulate marijuana sales if lawmakers fund education and prevention measures. He's also expressed concerns about the lack of technology to detect impaired driving from cannabis.

The Senate has passed bills legalizing retail marijuana sales on three occasions while the House has so far been unable to do so.

Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro-bono drug policy drug reform advocate from Middlebury, said he's feeling confident the bill will pass this time as well.

“With half the body already sponsoring the legislation, and the bill having been significantly improved in committee on important aspects like promoting equity in the cannabis industry, it's pretty safe to predict that S 54 will easily pass the Senate with strong tri-partisan support,” he said. “Based on previous voting records, and what new Senators have said about cannabis regulation on the campaign trail, I expect anywhere from 24 to 26 ayes, with only 4 to 6 nays.”

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