Vermont House Approves Marijuana Legalization, Bill Now Goes To Gov. Scott

May 10, 2017

A bill that would legalize possession and cultivation of limited amounts of marijuana has won joint approval in the Vermont Legislature, leaving Republican Gov. Phil Scott as the final hurdle to passage of a legalization law in 2017.

A 79-66 vote on the House floor Wednesday delivered a surprise victory for proponents of a legalization effort that appeared all but doomed as recently as a week ago. Now, a gubernatorial veto is the only action that could forestall the arrival of legal weed beginning in July of 2018.

In advance of the House vote Wednesday, Scott reiterated his longstanding opposition to the passage of a legalization bill in 2017. Scott has said he thinks legalization likely inevitable in the future, but he says Vermont needs to institute enhanced highway safety measures — including a roadside marijuana impairment test that doesn’t currently exist — before moving forward with a legalization law. 

“It’s no secret that I don’t believe this a priority for Vermont. I believe that what we should be doing is trying to find ways to protect those on our highways, to deliver a level of impairment that is consistent throughout the northeast, as well as to address the edibles for our kids before we move forward with legalization,” Scott said Wednesday.

The governor, however, left some wiggle room in his position. And he isn’t guaranteeing a veto just yet.

“I’m going to review the bill as passed,” Scott said. “I’ll take a look at the bill. But I’ve been pretty clear that I’d like to see some improvements to the bill to make sure we have structures in place that provide safety to Vermonters.”

“I’ll take a look at the bill. But I’ve been pretty clear that I’d like to see some improvements to the bill to make sure we have structures in place that provide safety to Vermonters.” — Gov. Phil Scott

Both the House and Senate had previously given approval this year to marijuana legalization bills, but they’ve been split until now over the most appropriate legal framework for relaxed cannabis laws. 

House lawmakers favor a plan that would allow for possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, and cultivation of up to two mature marijuana plants. But they want to keep in place criminal penalties for larger-scale grow operations, and all marijuana sales.

Senate lawmakers, meanwhile, prefer a “tax and regulate” system that would establish licensed growers and create a retail market for sales. 

Last Friday, Senate lawmakers sought to bridge that ideological divide with a hybrid measure that incorporates elements of both chambers’ bills. On Wednesday, House lawmakers, some rather reluctantly, decided to concur with the Senate compromise. It was the last procedural action needed to complete the bill’s journey through the Legislature. 

That bill is now headed to the desk of Vermont’s first-term Republican governor. 

The compromise legislation would adopt the House legalization proposal, beginning in July of 2018, when retail marijuana sales are slated to begin in Massachusetts (the House bill would originally have gone into effect this summer). But it would create a commission to study a tax and regulate framework in the meantime.

The compromise legislation would adopt the House legalization proposal, beginning in July of 2018, when retail marijuana sales are slated to begin in Massachusetts

On Wednesday morning, Moretown Rep. Maxine Grad, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the compromise measure gives Vermont an opportunity to update its marijuana laws in ways that reflect the evolving legal landscape in New England. Maine and Massachusetts have legalized cannabis; Canada is poised to follow suit.

“With Massachusetts and Maine starting up in 2018, I think we need to continue this conversation,” Grad says. “I think this [tax and regulate] commission can certainly help us do that, so I think it’s a really good piece of legislation in the end.”

The House Judiciary Committee voted 8-3 to recommend that the full House adopt the Senate compromise. 

Passage by the full House Wednesday is a product of a delayed adjournment — the governor and legislative leaders remain at impasse over the issue of possible savings in teacher health plans.

Lawmakers had been slated to adjourn last Saturday. And at that point, it didn’t appear that the legalization proposal had the votes to pass. Assistant House Majority Leader Tristan Toleno says several House lawmakers had moderated their views on the bill after contemplating the proposal over the weekend.

West Rutland Rep. Tom Burditt, a Republican, is one of them. Burditt voted in favor the House bill last month, but said Friday they’d reject the Senate compromise. On Wednesday, he said he’d had a change of heart.

“I don’t think I’ve ever given a bill so much thought,” Burditt said.

"We cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand and hope that the problem will resolve itself or that it will simply go away." — Sen. Joe Benning

Burditt said he opposes tax and regulate. But he says he doesn’t think creating a committee to study the idea will put Vermont any closer to passing a tax and regulate system than it is already. Burditt says for him the legalization effort is about reducing people’s “negative contact with law enforcement ... people getting harassed for no reason in my opinion.” And he says the compromise bill achieves that goal.

Final passage of the bill comes despite severe opposition from many lawmakers, medical providers and advocates who say the plan will drastically increase the marijuana supply in Vermont, and open up new avenues for consumption by teenagers. 

Dr. Jill Rinehart, a primary care pediatrician at Hagan, Rinehart and Connolly Pediatrics in Burlington, is the president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a member of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a coalition formed to oppose this session’s marijuana legalization bills.

Rinehart says marijuana can have a devastating effect on young people.

“It de-motivates young people, it keeps them apart from their peers in doing types of activities that we know helps kids to be successful,” Rinehart says.

There is no conclusive statistical evidence to indicate that legalization increases usage rates among kids in states with more permissive cannabis laws. But Rinehart says data shows that perception of the risk posed by cannabis is going down among Vermont children. She says legalization could exacerbate that trend.

“And it’s that kind of normalization to families who really want to do the best thing for their children and their family, and then they end up with this outcome that is so devastating,” Rinehart says.

The bill’s supporters say the legislation offers a saner criminal justice approach to a drug used regularly by an estimated 80,000 Vermonters, according to a recent study by the RAND Corporation. 

Caledonia County Sen. Joe Benning, a Republican, says public opinion surveys have demonstrated clear support for legalization among Vermont residents.

“The last thing we want to do … is leave this building without having something in place going forward,” Benning said last week. 

Benning says the urgency is fueled by the advent of legalization in Maine, Massachusetts and now Canada, which will suddenly put many Vermonters within a short driving distance of legal access to marijuana.

Benning says keeping prohibition in place in Vermont will lead to the same dangerous phenomenon that he and his neighbors deal with in the Northeast Kingdom, where they “worry at night about our kids heading over the border” to buy alcohol. The drinking age in Canada is 18.

“We cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand and hope that the problem will resolve itself or that it will simply go away,” Benning says.