Is A Compromise On Marijuana Legalization Brewing In Montpelier?

May 3, 2017

There's no question that the Vermont House and Senate have very different views concerning the legalization of marijuana. In the final days of the session, some lawmakers are trying to bridge this gap with a new compromise plan.

On one end of the legalization spectrum is the Senate plan to have the state regulate marijuana. It includes retail stores and the taxation of pot, similar to the approach taken in Colorado.

On the other end of the spectrum is the House plan to legalize the possession of 1 ounce of marijuana and allow individuals to grow a few plants. This is like the legalization law in Washington, D.C.

Now, in the waning days of the session, a possible compromise is emerging.

The plan incorporates the House approach and includes a special commission that would study how to best to implement a state regulated model. The panel would make its recommendations to lawmakers next January and the proposal would be subject to legislative approval at that time.

Senate President Tim Ashe is intrigued by the compromise.

"We've said that from the beginning that some progress on extinguishing the black market and moving towards a controlled, regulated system was really our end goal,” said Ashe. “How we achieve it remains elusive because of the late date of the House action."

"We've said that from the beginning that some progress on extinguishing the black market and moving towards a controlled, regulated system was really our end goal." — Senate President Tim Ashe

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears is a strong supporter of the state regulatory approach. He says he's willing to look at the compromise, "if there's a path towards regulated market from seed to sale. There needs to be, to me, needs to be a path."

Senate Government Operations chairwoman Jeanette White is a sponsor of the original Senate bill. She's not ready to support the compromise.

"What do I think about setting up a commission? I think we ought to just pass the Senate bill,” said White. “We've already studied it to death, we've already made lots of decisions.”

House Judiciary chairwoman Maxine Grad is strong supporter of the House's personal possession bill. She has a lot of questions about creating a special commission at this time.

"The question with the commission is, what does it do? ... Can we do this same work and achieve the same goals differently?" — House Judiciary Chairwoman Maxine Grad

"The question with the commission is, what does it do? What are its charges? How much does it cost?” said Grad. “Can we do this same work and achieve the same goals differently?" 

Meanwhile, House Minority leader Don Turner says he'll oppose the legalization of marijuana in any form this session.

“We have enough problems in Vermont with opiate addiction, all kinds of issues that we're dealing with, mental health issues and so on. And now we're going to expand an illegal substance, is what we're doing," said Turner.

Why do the two chambers view the legalization of marijuana so differently?

House Judiciary chairwoman Grad thinks her colleagues reflect the views of many Vermonters that changes in marijuana policy should be done incrementally. Grad says legalizing the personal possession of small amounts of pot is the place to start.

"Taking that off the table, I think, is a very big step for public safety all around,” said Grad.

Senate President Ashe thinks the House and Senate come at the issue from very different perspectives. He says a strong majority in the 30-member Senate has supported a legal marijuana market for two years.

“The Senate keeps maintaining that position from one year to the next,” said Ashe. “The House has huge turnover from year to year, and it turns out right now it's just a close call whether there's support for any further [action], either decriminalization or legalization."

The future of the compromise is uncertain, because lawmakers would have to approve several procedural motions to bring it up for a vote, and that could be a challenge in the last days of the session.