By Erin Mansfield, VTDigger.org
Proponents of marijuana legalization struck out three times on Tuesday, May 3. The House overwhelmingly defeated a proposal (S.241) from the Senate that would have legalized retail marijuana sales in Vermont by 2018. The House then rejected a proposal to hold a statewide, non-binding referendum on marijuana legalization during the August primary. In a final blow, lawmakers struck down a potential compromise that would have decriminalized homegrown pot.
The triple defeat effectively kills pot legalization efforts this session, which came to a close on Saturday, May 7. One related bill slightly loosens rules on medical marijuana.
The House has effectively ruled out Vermont’s becoming the first legislature in New England to legalize marijuana. Connecticut and Rhode Island legislatures are considering legalization measures this year, and Massachusetts and Maine will have voter referendums.
Tuesday’s votes also mark a defeat for Gov. Peter Shumlin, who proposed in his State of the State address to legalize marijuana and worked with allies in the Senate to pass a bill that would have allowed the state to issue licenses to marijuana cultivators and retailers. It would have prohibited Vermonters from growing their own pot.
“The War on Drugs policy of marijuana prohibition has failed,” Shumlin said. “I want to thank those House members who recognize that and worked to move this issue forward. It is incredibly disappointing, however, that a majority of the House has shown a remarkable disregard for the sentiment of most Vermonters who understand that we must pursue a smarter policy when it comes to marijuana in this state.”
State Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, also railed against House members’ opposition to the Senate bill. “Prohibition fails because we have $150 million worth of economic activity related to cannabis every year in Vermont,” Pearson said. “It fails because use, frankly, is rampant. The Rand Report suggested 80,000 Vermonters enjoy cannabis every month. It’s hard to argue that the way we are approaching marijuana is working well.”
Local uniformed police officers from around the state who opposed legalization have been a presence in the State House for the past few days. Lobbyists for and against the measure have also prowled the halls, leaning on lawmakers to vote for and against.
In the end, House Speaker Shap Smith was right. He has said all along that he didn’t have the votes on the floor for marijuana. He went so far as to suggest on Monday that proponents push for a referendum instead.
But even a statewide, nonbinding referendum—offered by Republican House Minority Leader Don Turner—didn’t have gas in the House.
“So much for Vermont’s reputation as a liberal state,” said Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier.
The House voted Tuesday 121-28 in a roll call vote to defeat S.241, which would have created a legal pot market for recreational consumers. The Senate bill passed Feb. 25. After the House watered it down, the Senate used a procedural move Wednesday to force the House to vote on the bill. The Senate’s marijuana bill would have allowed the Department of Public Safety to issue 27 licenses to marijuana cultivators, 15 retail licenses, and five laboratory licenses in 2018. The number of licenses would have doubled in 2019.
After defeating the Senate’s legalization bill, the House defeated a referendum that would have posed the question: “Should Vermont legalize marijuana for recreational use?” The referendum would have taken place during the August primary. The measure failed 97-51, largely along party lines.
The House then defeated a final compromise, which would have allowed Vermonters to cultivate two plants at home. That measure went down 77-70, with Progressives in favor, Republicans opposed, and Democrats split.
The proposal to decriminalize two plants seemed to have momentum until state Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, began asking how many joints the plants would produce. At first the number was 1,280 joints, taken from 32 ounces of marijuana.
“It’s 1,280! Under what possible definition is that a small amount?” Browning asked.
The number of joints kept growing. Figures produced from the Vermont State Police said two pot plants could, at the high end, produce more than 4 pounds of marijuana in 120 days, resulting in a possible 4,830 joints.
“This level of decriminalization is de facto legalization,” Browning said. “If you can grow that much and keep that much and just pay a civil fine, I worry about the consequences.”
The lengthy inquiry exploded the proposal and caused a legislative meltdown that lasted the rest of the day.
Rep. Charles Conquest, D-Wells River, the lead sponsor on the decriminalization amendment, said Vermont needs to “rationalize our existing decriminalization statute” before moving from a culture of marijuana prohibition to marijuana legalization.
The amendment would have decreased the financial penalty for marijuana possession and added marijuana possession to current driving laws that prohibit open containers and alcohol consumption in motor vehicles.
Other provisions would have created an education program for youth marijuana use and directed the Agency of Transportation and Department of Public Safety to seek federal funding to train police officers on how to address impaired driving.
Debate from the floor
The House spent more than five hours on the floor debating marijuana legislation. The chamber delayed a vote previously scheduled for Monday night, then delayed the vote from 9:30 a.m. until lunchtime, and took many breaks before voting on the legislation.
One of the breaks happened when the House Judiciary Committee, which watered down the Senate’s version of S.241 back in April, spent the morning debating the Conquest proposal. The legislation failed in a 6-5 vote.
Rep. John Bartholomew, D-Hartland, said there would be more restrictions on marijuana use if lawmakers legalize it. He said people drank more often during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and faced restrictions when prohibition ended.
“Once you allow something, there is an entire code of law closing outlets, age limits, percentage of alcohol you drink, no Sunday sales in many states,” he said. “I think we need to learn the lessons of history, not ignore them.”
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, voted against the Senate’s S.241 language because she said it would have promoted large commercial sellers while prohibiting average people from growing their own marijuana.
The bill was not fully vetted, according to Rep. Doug Gage, R-Rutland City, and it was the result of “shoddy work in a direction that is very politically charged.” “We have not entered this process very well at all,” Gage said. “It was literally two weeks ago that our Judiciary Committee [voted on] anything that would happen with marijuana.”
Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, told lawmakers the homegrown provision could bring new plants to Vermont and sought to send the bill to the Agriculture Committee. When his proposal failed, Tate called the move a “Hail Mary Jane.”
Turner, the minority leader, said he opposed marijuana decriminalization three years ago but has accepted that it is the law of the land, and if his constituents supported legalization in a referendum, he would have helped pass a bill. “I stand in front of my caucus every single time and I say, you represent your constituents,” Turner said. “You represent what they want. That’s why we’re standing here. Well, I’m putting my money where my mouth is.”
But he also added: “I can’t understand how putting more marijuana in people’s hands is going to reduce the problem.”
By Erin Mansfield, VTDigger.org