With Legalization Off The Table, Lawmakers Reconsider A Statewide Referendum

May 5, 2016

Following the defeat this week of a marijuana legalization bill, House Democratic leaders are exploring the possibility of putting the issue to Vermonters in November with a non-binding referendum.

Lawmakers are considering the referendum idea as the legislative session draws to a close.

House Democratic leaders are reluctant to talk about this option until they fully gauge support for it in their caucus.

Some veteran lawmakers are concerned that this non-binding mechanism could be used in the future to undercut support for a variety of civil rights issues.

Recently, when discussing the issue of marijuana, House Speaker Shap Smith said he thought this advisory approach was a good idea.

“I do think that having a referendum that was in concert with the General Election in November would be our best chance to get a sense of how people in the state of Vermont feel about this particular issue," he says.

On Tuesday afternoon, House Minority leader Don Turner offered an amendment to hold a non-binding referendum on Primary Election Day in August. 

The amendment asked the question, "Should Vermont legalize marijuana for recreational use?"

It was defeated by roughly a two-to-one margin. A number of Democrats complained that August was a terrible time to hold the referendum because of low voter turnout.

Turner says it's likely that he'd support presenting this question to voters in November if the same language is used.

“We're about transparency,” Turner says. “We want people to weigh in on the issue. If it came back like that, I think that we would look at it very seriously." 

Turner acknowledges that some GOP lawmakers have concerns that holding a November referendum could significantly boost turnout among young voters on Election Day, and that this could help Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.

But he says it's worth the risk.

“I know that maybe some of my colleagues in the Republican Party have concerns about people coming to vote,” he says. “We're going to bring a slate of great candidates to the polls in November. People have to understand that Vermont's going in the wrong direction.”

Burlington Progressive Chris Pearson is a strong supporter of the legalization of marijuana.

Pearson says he has some serious questions about using the referendum process to decide difficult legislative issues. On the other hand, he says a positive statewide vote could help move Vermont towards legalization next year.

“I think a referendum in November would pass,” he says. “And that would clearly advance the issue, and to my mind inject some courage into the Legislature, which obviously needs it when you look at this question.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin's office says the governor doesn't like to publicly talk about issues that are still in the development stage.

But earlier this week he made it clear that he wants lawmakers to advance this issue before adjournment.

“Maine, Massachusetts and probably Rhode Island are going to pass legalization bills in the not-too-distant future,” Shumlin said. “I think it is incumbent upon Vermont to come up with a better policy than we have right now. It's not working."  

There are some procedural issues with bringing the referendum plan to the floor of both the House and Senate in the final days of the session: The proposal would have to be attached to legislation that leaders are confident will pass before Saturday's planned adjournment.