After Showing Signs Of Life, Bill To Tax And Regulate Marijuana Dead For 2018

Apr 27, 2018

An eleventh-hour push to resurrect legislation that would have created a legal market for retail marijuana sales fizzled out Friday, but many elected officials say it’s only a matter of time before Vermont decides to tax and regulate cannabis.

The legislative intrigue began on Thursday afternoon, when Winooski Rep. Diana Gonzalez started laying the procedural ground work for a vote on the tax-and-regulate bill.

Gonzalez said she was optimistic that a tri-partisan coalition of lawmakers had the votes needed to pass the measure.

Democratic leadership in the House had other ideas, however. And on Friday morning, House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski moved to postpone action on the measure indefinitely.

“I believe that with the remaining time we have left this session, we need to use it on the remaining priorities that we have,” Krowinski said.

Krowinski was echoing the sentiment of House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, who said Thursday that the tax-and-regulate bill was “far too large of a policy change to be jumping into the last week or two of the session.”

Democrats largely followed their speaker’s lead, and, despite the earlier optimism from Gonzalez, the vote to effectively kill the legislation passed by an overwhelming margin.

"The battle’s over. You know, the war has been won. This stuff is gonna be legal, it’s gonna be available, and come July 1, it’s gonna be for sale right over the border in Massachusetts." — Eli Harrington, Heady Vermont

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who had been working behind the scenes to build support for the tax-and-regulate measure, said Friday’s vote might be the nail in the coffin for 2018 — but he said it’s only a matter of time before commercial cannabis becomes a reality in Vermont.

“This vote does not reflect the sentiment of the people, and when the sentiment of the people is reflected in this body, it will move forward,” Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat, isn’t the only elected official in Montpelier who shares that view. Even Republicans like House Minority Leader Don Turner, who oppose legalization generally, say the House should have moved forward this year with a tax-and-regulate framework.

“The way it’s gonna become legal is the worst possible way, from my perspective," Turner said. "There’s no regulation. There’s no taxation. But all the costs associated with it still come.” 

Lawmakers and the governor passed a law earlier this year that will legalize small possession of small amounts of marijuana, and allow residents to grow up to two mature marijuana plants. But as Turner notes, it does not take any steps to regulate the drug, or derive any state revenue from its sale.

More from VPR — Effective July 1, You Can Legally Have Up To An Ounce Of Marijuana In Vermont [Jan. 22]

The bill Gonzalez was trying to advance would have created an above-board industry for commercial cultivation, and ushered in a retail market akin to what’s in place in Colorado and Washington state.

Legalization proponent Eli Harrington, with the pro-cannabis organization Heady Vermont, said the end-of-session jostling over the tax-and-regulate bill shows just how rapidly views in Montpelier are changing.

“We have come so far with cannabis being normalized that it can now be an effective political football,” Harrington said.

And Harrington said it’s only a matter of time before more lawmakers accept the irrationality of the state’s existing approach to the drug.  

“The battle’s over. You know, the war has been won. This stuff is gonna be legal, it’s gonna be available, and come July 1, it’s gonna be for sale right over the border in Massachusetts,” Harrington said.

While the vote to advance the tax-and-regulate bill might have gone down on Friday, it doesn’t necessarily signal lack of majority support for the measure in the House. Many Democrats, like Burlington Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, said they voted reluctantly against it.

"We should tax and regulate as soon as possible. However, we don't have the time left in this session to build the consensus we would need to override the inevitable veto from the governor." — Burlington Rep. Jean O'Sullivan

“We should tax and regulate as soon as possible,” O’Sullivan said. “However, we don’t have the time left in this session to build the consensus we would need to override the inevitable veto from the governor.”

Gov. Phil Scott created a commission last year to study the tax-and-regulate model. Scott said he wants to see more highway safety and public health protections in place before Vermont legalizes retail cannabis sales.

The Vermont Senate voted last year to put a tax-and-regulate framework in place, but the measure did not advance in the House.