An Uncertain Future For Marijuana Legalization In June's Special Session

May 30, 2017

Backers of a compromise plan to legalize the recreational use of marijuana to have a proposal ready for lawmakers to consider when a special veto session begins on June 21. But they're concerned that no action will take place.

That's because House Republicans are threatening to block consideration of the bill.

When Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the marijuana bill last week, he made it very clear to lawmakers that he wasn't completely opposed to the legalization of pot.

In fact, he said if they addressed a number of his public safety concerns in the legislation, and if they extended the work of a special commission, there's a very good chance he'd sign a new bill.

“If they are willing to work with me to address my concerns in a new bill, passed during the veto session this summer, there is a path forward on this issue," said Scott. 

Since then, a group of senators has met with members of the administration to draft a new bill that will incorporate many of the governor's concerns.

"Unless [House Republicans] are agreeable to suspend the rules, nothing can happen in a two-day session." — Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears says he's optimistic about a compromise, because of the broad coalition of officials involved "who are working together to try and craft something that would be agreeable to the governor and agreeable to us."

But Sears says there's a major obstacle to passage of the bill during the special veto session: the House Republican caucus.

"I'd say the biggest concern is that the House Republicans are going to refuse to suspend the rules, and unless they're agreeable to suspend the rules, nothing can happen in a two-day session," said Sears.

Sears notes that House Minority Leader Don Turner has vowed to use parliamentary procedures to block consideration of the compromise.

Turner says a decision to "block a suspension of rules" will be made by his entire caucus. And he expects that most GOP House members will vote to block consideration of any compromise marijuana bill.

"With 50 of the 53 members of the caucus opposing marijuana, I would believe we probably would be unwilling to suspend rules," said Turner.

"With 50 of the 53 members of the caucus opposing marijuana, I would believe we probably would be unwilling to suspend rules." — House Minority Leader Don Turner

Turner says Vermont should not be in a rush to legalize marijuana. He says he thinks waiting until the 2018 session will give lawmakers a chance to study how things are going in some of the states that have legalized pot.

“You don't know what kind of information will be released, or what kinds of studies will be given, or who's going to have a chance to testify next year that didn't get an opportunity in the past,” said Turner. “So there's opportunity for people to change on how they even voted before." 

Caledonia Sen. Joe Benning is a lawyer who strongly supports the legalization of marijuana. He's also one of the senators working with the Scott administration to draft a compromise approach. Benning says finding common ground on this issue is a significant achievement.

"We actually have the House, the Senate and the administration all in sync with the idea that legalization can happen,” said Benning. “It's just a question of tweaking how to make it work and work right, which is really what we have all been trying to do from day one on this issue." 

"Whether it happens in June or it happens in January, I think we are still on schedule for a summer legalization in 2018." — Sen. Joe Benning

The bill that the governor vetoed legalized the personal possession of marijuana, effective on July 1, 2018. Benning thinks that goal is still achievable, even if the bill isn't taken up during the special veto session.

"Whether it happens in June or it happens in January, I think we are still on schedule for a summer legalization in 2018," said Benning. 

Lawmakers and the governor will also try to find a compromise on the issue of teacher health care contracts during the veto session.

Scott is backing a statewide contract, while House and Senate leaders want to leave this collective bargaining decision at the local level.