Marijuana Legalization In Vermont: What Happened, And What's Next?

May 9, 2016

Backers of legislation to legalize marijuana say they're disappointed that they weren't successful this session. One problem was that the House and the Senate looked at the issue very differently.

While the Senate approved a bill that regulated the sale, cultivation and taxing of marijuana, the plan received only 28 votes in the 150-person House.

The House also defeated several other approaches, including one that decriminalized the growing of up to two plants.

Gov. Peter Shumlin strongly supported the Senate plan. He joked about the difficulties of passing a bill in the House during his adjournment address to a meeting of both the House and Senate late Friday night.

“Is this a legal joint session?” he joked. “I knew that we could get this legal joint session in the House before we were done!" 

House Speaker Shap Smith said the problem in the House was that there wasn't a majority to pass anything.

"I think it's disappointing for those of us who think that the reform of marijuana laws is important,” Smith said. “It was clear to me that we didn't have the support within the House to do that."

The House and Senate Judiciary committees had major philosophical differences on the question of how to legalize marijuana.

While the Senate followed the regulatory approach taken by the state of Colorado, the House looked at a plan adopted in Washington, D.C., that legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana without the enormous state administrative structure.

House Judiciary chairwoman Maxine Grad told her colleagues that she couldn't support the "large-scale commercial" approach taken by the Senate.

“That does not allow for small-scale growing for personal use or does not further the role of small scale growers and community supported agriculture. S-241 is not the Vermont way,” she said.

Senate Judiciary chairman Dick Sears notes that the Senate bill authorized 54 licensed cultivators, and he bristles at the thought that his plan represented "corporate weed."

“That is not Big Weed,” Sears says. “Listening to some of the comments of those who said, ‘Well, I support legalization but the Senate version is ‘Corporate Weed,’ that just bothered me tremendously."

This issue will receive further legislative study. Senator Sears and Rep. Grad have requested that the Joint Committee on Justice Oversight hold six meetings this summer and fall to take additional testimony on the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana.