House Snuffs Marijuana Legalization, Issue Dead For 2016 Session

May 3, 2016

Marijuana legalization is dead for the 2016 session. The Vermont House Tuesday rejected an amendment that would have decriminalized the growing of two plants by a vote of 77 to 70. Lawmakers earlier defeated a Senate plan for commercial marijuana sales.  

But the House did approve language calling for a special commission to examine issues surrounding the full legalization of marijuana. The commission is to report its findings in December. 

The first issue facing the House was to vote on the Senate's plan to legalize marijuana beginning in January of 2018. The plan also would have created a state regulatory structure to grow, sell and tax marijuana.

House Judiciary chairperson Maxine Grad expressed strong concerns about the Senate's approach and said: "It is not the Vermont way."

"My vote is a vote against creating a large-scale commercial market that does not allow for small scale growing for personal use," she said, "or does not further the role of small growers and community supported agriculture."    

The House rejected the Senate plan by a vote of 121 to 28.

House Minority Leader Don Turner then proposed holding a statewide nonbinding referendum on Primary Election Day in August to allow voters to express their opinion on the question of legalizing marijuana.

"You guys want to know if Vermont wants to legalize?" Turner asked the chamber. "Put your money where your mouth is. Vote for my amendment."

"You guys want to know if Vermont wants to legalize? Put your money where your mouth is. Vote for my amendment." — House Minority Leader Don Turner

Many Democrats argued that August was a terrible time to hold a referendum vote because few Vermonters vote in the primary election. Woodstock Rep. Alison Clarkson said the plan was an abdication of legislative responsibility.

"We are elected to represent our constituents we are elected to make tough decisions. That's our responsibility," she said.

The House defeated the nonbinding referendum plan by a vote of 97 to 51.

That vote set the stage for debate over a compromise plan drafted by House Democratic leaders over the past few days.

It called for the decriminalization of growing up to two plants, it included additional prevention and education programs for young people, and it called for the creation of a special commission to research many of the issues surrounding the legalization of marijuana.

In the end, the only piece that survived was the creation of a special commission to study legalization.

Newbury Rep. Chip Conquest said the panel was needed to closely study the experience of Colorado and Washington, two states that have developed a retail market for marijuana.

"The data is not really reliable," Conquest said. "I don't think — at least from my part — I didn't feel like I could count on it to really give me a good indication of what was happening."

Conquest noted that Vermont has already decriminalized the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. He says it's time to take the same approach with the cultivation of two plants so that people can get their marijuana from a legal source.

"And by not doing that we've said that those people need to enter a criminal realm," said Conquest. "They need to get it from someone who is committing a crime and that doesn't seem to me a very rational way of setting up this system."

"It is incredibly disappointing ... 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." — Gov. Peter Shumlin

But a number of House members argued that it's a mistake to allow for the cultivation of plants. Their view ultimately prevailed.

Because of procedural issues at the end of the legislative session, if the House passes any part of its proposal, Senate leaders will not be able to amend the House plan and instead will have to accept or reject it as-is.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, who publicly pressured lawmakers to legalize marijuana this year, condemned the House's decision.

"The War on Drugs policy of marijuana prohibition has failed," he 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."