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Vermont Cannabis Hearing Draws Supporters, Opponents

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont lawmakers heard differing views Thursday on a bill to legalize marijuana, although a majority of those who testified before legislative committees said they support the measure.

"I'm a normal, nonpsychotic guy," said Bruce Kimball of Essex. "I consider myself a law-abiding citizen, but my use of pot over the years has made me an outlaw. Do I like that? No. … What I would like is the option to purchase pot from a safe, regulated, well-maintained dispensary."

He was one of several people testifying at the hearing who sought to emphasize the normalcy of their lives — families, jobs, community service — despite regular marijuana use.

The House Judiciary and Government Operations committees heard testimony on a Senate-passed bill to legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for people 21 and older. Sign-up sheets for those testifying showed 34 favored legalization, 19 opposed and five were undecided. The bill also envisions a system of licensed growers and retailers.

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Some of those who opposed the bill said they weren't opposed to legalization but were concerned it would keep homegrown marijuana illegal and set up fees and other requirements favoring big business over small farmers and entrepreneurs.

Emily Amanna, who operates a small farm in the southern Vermont town of Athens, said she and other small farmers had hoped marijuana would be a cash crop that could help support often marginal operations. But Senate Bill 241, as currently written, would "take a multi-million-dollar industry out of the hands of good, hardworking Vermonters," she said, and put it in the hands of a "corporatized, monopolized industry."

Among other opponents, a doctor and a psychotherapist testified about the dangers of marijuana to brain development in young people, and studies linking it to the onset of mental illness.

Catherine Antley, a Burlington physician, told the committees that Colorado has seen an 8 percent increase in the number of 12- to 17-year-olds using marijuana in the first year after that state legalized pot. She said one study found that those people who begin using the drug heavily in adolescence dropped an average 8 percent in performance on IQ tests by the time they became adults.

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Some of those testifying said marijuana legalization could help dampen demand for heroin and other opioids, which President Barack Obama this week labeled an epidemic.

Maria D'Haene, a clinical social worker from Barre Town, told lawmakers she had seen opiate-addicted clients switch to marijuana and see big improvements in their lives. Opiate users are more likely to lose their children to state custody than marijuana users are, she said.

House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Maxine Grad, a Moretown Democrat, says the panel hopes to finish its work on the bill next week. She says it's unclear whether the committee will vote to support the measure.

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