Senate Vote Keeps Pot Bill In Play, But House Still Undecided On Legalization This Year

May 6, 2017

The Vermont Senate has resurrected a bill that would legalize possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana, but it’s unclear whether the late-session compromise measure has the support needed to pass in the House.

The legalization effort looked doomed in 2017 after House and Senate lawmakers were deeply split over which legalization framework is appropriate for Vermont.

Senate lawmakers prefer a “tax and regulate” system that would establish licensed growers and create a retail market for sales. House lawmakers, meanwhile, favor a plan that would allow for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, and cultivation of one or two mature marijuana plants, but keep in place criminal penalties for larger-scale grow operations and all sales.

Sen. Dick Sears put forward a compromise measure on Friday that incorporates elements of both chamber’s legalization bills.

Sears says the advent of legalization in Maine and Massachusetts fuels the urgency to pass a law in Vermont before the end of this session.

“This is an effort at a compromise, to find a way for Vermont to join two other New England states with a legalized, regulated seed-to-sale system at some point in the hopefully near future,” Sears said Friday.

Sen. Dick Sears says laws in Massachusetts, Maine and Canada make it critical that Vermont adopt marijuana legalization this year.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR File

Earlier this week, the House gave final passage to its version of the legalization bill. Sears has now added onto it language that would create a commission to study a tax and regulate system. That commission would return later this year with recommendations on how to proceed with a commercial marijuana market.

The commission’s tax and regulate proposal would not go into effect unless lawmakers in both chambers signed off on the plan.

But while the commission language does not in any way bind future legislators, many House lawmakers are leery of Sears’ plan. West Rutland Rep. Tom Burditt, a Republican, helped lead the push for a House vote on the “Washington, D.C.-style” legalization bill passed by the House.

Burditt, however, told his colleagues in the House Judiciary Committee Friday afternoon that he can’t support the bill with the commission language, even if it means lawmakers will leave Montpelier without a legalization bill.

The original House bill would have legalized marijuana beginning this July; Sears’ plan pushes the effective date out to July 1 of 2018.

Moretown Rep. Maxine, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, says her committee is still mulling its options. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said Friday night that she’s not sure yet if the compromise bill will get a vote on the House floor.

Lawmakers postponed what had been a planned Saturday adjournment, which buys proponents of legalization a couple extra days to press for a deal. But it remains unclear whether the House can muster the votes needed to get legislation in place before the end of the session.