On Wednesday afternoon, the Vermont Senate became only the second legislative body in the nation to approve a bill that would legalize the sale and possession of marijuana. But the narrow vote spotlights the controversial nature of the legislation. And proposal still faces staunch opposition in the House.
It wasn't all that long ago that Bennington Sen. Dick Sears was viewed as one of the key stumbling blocks to the legalization proposal.
"If you had told me even three months ago that I'd be voting yes, and actually speaking on the floor and defending this bill, I would have told you you were crazy," Sears said during a more than two-hour floor debate Wednesday.
Over the course of those intervening months, however, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee says he's come to appreciate the merits of regulating the state's illicit cannabis trade.
"For me the question has always been, does the current system of prohibition work? And are we better off with a tightly regulated seed-to-sale system?" Sears said. "I believe S.241 is a rational approach to the failed policy of today."
"S.241" is the Senate bill that would allow Vermonters to legally purchase up to half an ounce of cannabis at retail outlets across the state. It also sets the rules of the road for the licensed cultivators who would be allowed to grow marijuana in facilities of up to 10,000 square feet.
'Yes' votes from previously skeptical lawmakers like Sears helped propel the legislation to preliminary approval by a vote of 16-13 Wednesday afternoon. But strident opposition remains. Senate President John Campbell said it's disturbing to him that the vote comes as Vermont tries to counter the effects of what he called an epidemic of opiate abuse.
"And what's our answer? Let's legalize another substance, another drug," Campbell said. "I think that is a terrible, terrible message to send to our kids, our friends, our neighbors."
Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, one of two Republicans to vote in favor of the bill, said Vermont's opiate problem is in fact one the reasons to support the bill. Legislative analysts estimate that the 25-percent excise tax on retail marijuana sales will generate as much as $20 million annually.
Benning says some of that money will be used to bolster prevention and treatment programs that aren't currently up to the task.
"This bill and no other piece of legislation in this building right now, this bill actually sets up a system to start addressing that problem," Benning said. "And if we don't pass it ... that problem will only get worse."
"This bill is the strongest piece of legislation in the United States today in addressing marijuana as a legal substance," Benning said.
In a statement issued after the vote, Gov. Peter Shumlin called it "a big moment for Vermont."
The governor says 80,000 Vermonters admit to using marijuana on a monthly basis and it's clear the current system is broken.
Many lawmakers voiced concern over the fact that the legislation would maintain the prohibition on homegrown marijuana even after cannabis is legalized. Sears said it's a necessary provision to keep product off the black market, but agreed to establish a study commission to keep alive the possibility of homegrown in the future.
The legislation will get a final vote in the Senate on Thursday before heading to the House, where legalization proponents face a steep climb. House Speaker Shap Smith has expressed concerns about the impact of legalization on drugged driving.
The bill will likely head first to the judiciary committee when it arrives in the House.
Updated 5:47 p.m. Feb. 24, 2016 to include comments from Sen. Sears, Sen. Campbell and further reporting.