Prospects for a marijuana legalization bill passing out of Montpelier this year grew even dimmer Tuesday, when key Senate lawmakers said their body is exceedingly unlikely to support the plan being considered in House.
Last month, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would legalize possession of up to an ounce of cannabis, and would also remove criminal and civil penalties for very small homegrown operations. The legislation was headed for a vote on the House floor, but was pulled by House leadership when it became clear the measure did not have the votes to pass.
Legalization proponents have been holding out hope that the bill will return to the House floor, once they secure enough votes to ensure passage, and that the Senate would then go along with the measure. But Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said Tuesday that even if the House bill clears its next legislative hurdle, it likely faces insurmountable hurdles in the Senate.
“The dilemma is that it reinforces a black market approach rather than really taking the next steps that many other states have been doing in terms of more streamlined, regulated system that allows you to educate people, keep it out of the hands of kids,” Ashe said Tuesday.
Asked whether there’s any scenario under which the Senate would concur with the House bill, Ashe said “it’s hard to see that happening.”
Windham County Sen. Jeannette, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, and a leading proponent of marijuana legalization, said she “can’t imagine” that the Senate would sign off on the House approach.
The Senate favors a far different legalization framework.
Last year, it became one of the first legislative bodies in the country to pass a bill that would tax and regulate the marijuana industry, removing criminal and civil penalties for possession, and establishing a commercial cannabis industry with licensed growers and retail outlets.
That bill failed by a wide margin in the House, where it got fewer than 30 ‘yes’ votes on the House floor.
White says the tax-and-regulate model would ensure that consumers are getting a safe product, and also undermine the illicit cannabis market. The House bill, White says, “does nothing to decrease the black market.
“It in fact encourages it, because now you’re going to be able to have a certain amount, or an increased amount, and it will be completely legal,” White says. “There’s no place for you to get it, so it’s going to increase the underground market.”
Ashe and White say they could envision a compromise measure, wherein the Legislature adopts a House-style legalization plan now, but include a “road map” of sorts laying out the path toward a commercial framework.
But they say there almost certainly isn’t enough time remaining in the 2017 session to work out the details of that compromise before the May 6 adjournment date leadership is working toward.
“We want to get this right, and we shouldn’t be dealing with it in 20 hours, or however long we would have,” White says.
Ashe says it appeared at the beginning of the session that the House was ready to “hit the ground running” on the legalization issue. White played on that analogy to express her frustration with the House’s inaction.
“I don’t know if they didn’t have their sneakers on or what but they fell somewhere in the middle and didn’t do what we expected them to do,” White says.
White says the House’s reluctance to move forward with the legalization issue has served to defy the will of the people they represent.
“To be honest, I think people are tired of this conversation going on and on and on. And it’s something that we just need to do,” White says. “We’ve been talking about this forever and people out there are tired of us dragging out feet and not getting anything done.”
House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski says it’s unclear at this point whether the House’s legalization bill will make it out of the House Committee on Human Services, which is where the legislation was sent after getting pulled from the floor. Krowinski says the bill, as constituted now, is as far as House lawmakers are willing to go.
“What I’m hearing from our members is that they want a step-by-step approach that maybe someday gets us to regulation and taxation, but right now they want to take it slow, and legalization may be that next step,” Krowinski said Tuesday.
If the Senate disagrees with that approach, Krowinski says, then “I welcome the Senate to put forth their own piece of legislation that reflects what their hearing in their body.”
Ashe and White say the Senate may do just that. Ashe says the Senate has a number of options on the legalization front in the remaining days of the session. One of those options, he says, is to pass a tax-and-regulate bill similar to the one adopted by the Senate last year, but rejected overwhelmingly by the House.
Ashe says passing the bill would at least leave a vehicle in place for the legalization debate when lawmakers return for the second half of the biennium in 2018.
“That would, if you will, be the bill hanging out there in the off-season, and for those who are interested in this issue … that would be really the discussion point,” Ashe says.
Ashe and White say they haven’t given up hope on passing a tax-and-regulate approach next year. And White says that legislation’s dismal result on the House floor last year doesn’t necessarily bode poorly for another vote in the near future.
“I believe that probably five of them had actually read the bill,” White says. “So I don’t think that they were really having a legitimate discussion in the Senate bill, because I don’t believe that most of them knew what was in there.”
Finding a path through the Legislature won’t be the end of the road for the legalization effort; Republican Gov. Phil Scott has said repeatedly that “now is not the time” for Vermont to legalize cannabis, despite the fact that voters in Maine and Massachusetts approved legalization referenda last November.
Scott says he wants a roadside test to determine marijuana intoxication levels before the state legalizes the drug - that technology doesn’t yet exist.