Marijuana Legalization Could Be Put To Voters In Non-Binding Referendum

Apr 27, 2016

With the House and Senate deadlocked on a bill legalizing marijuana, a possible compromise is to present this issue to voters in a nonbinding referendum in November.

While Vermont's political system calls on voters to approve proposed Constitutional amendments using a statewide referendum, the process doesn't allow for the consideration of other issues using this approach.

Occasionally, lawmakers seek guidance on an issue by holding a nonbinding referendum. It was used most recently in 1976 when voters were asked about a plan to create a state lottery. They strongly supported it.

Earlier this session, the Senate passed a comprehensive bill that established the regulatory framework for the legal sale of marijuana beginning in January of 2018.

But several House committees rejected the regulatory model and have instead supported efforts to legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana.

House Speaker Shap Smith says a possible compromise on this issue is to let voters weigh in on this subject using a nonbinding statewide referendum.

"That is an issue that has been discussed," Smith says. "And I certainly would be willing to listen to that particular option."

"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 of the state of Vermont feel about this particular issue." — House Speaker Shap Smith

And Smith says a nonbinding referendum would be a good way to gauge public opinion on this issue.

"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 of the state of Vermont feel about this particular issue," Smith said.

Chittenden Sen. David Zuckerman strongly supports the legalization of marijuana. He thinks this plan has merit.

"I think it's pretty clear that a majority of the state feels like our current policy is not working and that would be a way for them to express that," said Zuckerman.

A February poll conducted by VPR showed that 55 percent of Vermonters support the legalization of marijuana

Not everyone thinks that the nonbinding referendum approach is a good idea. Senate Government Operations chairwoman Jeannette White is one of the lead sponsors of the legalization bill in the Senate. She thinks there are a lot of problems with this plan.

"I think it's too complicated ... and if it's nonbinding it's not going to have any more impact on the Legislature than all of the surveys that have already been done." — Senate Government Operations chairwoman Jeannette White

"I think it's too complicated," says White. "And I think that on a question like this there will be big money involved on both sides of it and if it's nonbinding it's not going to have any more impact on the Legislature than all of the surveys that have already been done."

On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate sent another version of their bill over to the House as an amendment to a criminal procedure bill but Speaker Smith says there's very little support in the House for the Senate plan.