Vermont's Marijuana Legalization Bill Is Now A Shade Of Its Former Self

Apr 11, 2016

The House Judiciary Committee scaled back a marijuana bill even further Friday in order to squeak it through the committee and keep the bill alive, setting the stage for a possible showdown with the Senate over legalization.

By a 6 to 5 vote, the House passed a revamped S.241, which came from the Senate approving legalization for possessing up to one ounce of marijuana. But support for the Senate version never materialized in the House committee. A first attempt to pass the bill Friday that sought to decriminalize the possession of up to two marijuana plants failed on a 5 to 6 vote. After stripping out the expanded decriminalization of the drug, the committee turned Rep. Bill Frank, D-Underhill, who helped it advance on the second vote.

The bill passed by the committee creates a commission to study the eventual legalization of marijuana. It also lowers the legal blood-alcohol content limit from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent, if a driver also has marijuana present in their system.

Committee Chairwoman Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, urged the committee to support the initial bill, calling it “a balanced approach” and “an incremental step” that was short of legalization.

But others were not convinced. Rep. Thomas Burditt, R-West Rutland, said he personally supported the bill, but his constituents have urged him to vote against it by more than an 8 to 1 margin.

The bill passed by the committee creates a commission to study the eventual legalization of marijuana.

“An adult has a right to make choice for themselves and do whatever they want, as long as it’s not hurting anybody else. That’s my personal view,” he said. “I work for my constituents. Bottom line. I have to vote for them.”

Rep. Betty Nuovo, a Democrat from Middleburg, said she worried about road safety.

“I don’t believe they’re safe with marijuana,” she said.

Nuevo also cited marijuana as a harm to children’s brain development.

“I can’t vote for a bill that’s going to harm our children,” she said.

Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Irasburg, was even more bold.

“I have no respect for our current governor with his position on this,” she said.

"There are so many changes so often as a committee struggles to get it right that I've found it's best not to comment on every nuance of the process." - Gov. Peter Shumlin

Passage of the stripped-down bill keeps the Senate bill alive, however. It must still go through the House Appropriations and Ways and Means Committee. If it then passes on the House floor, House and Senate negotiators will try to reconcile the very disparate versions from each chamber.

The House version is a far cry from what Gov. Peter Shumlin called for in his State of the State address in January. He declined to comment on the House Judiciary Committee’s action Friday, but said he remains hopeful the ideas laid out in the Senate version will reach his desk.

“The sausage making process of the Legislature is such that there are so many changes so often as a committee struggles to get it right that I’ve found it’s best not to comment on every nuance of the process,” Shumlin said. “I’ve been very forthright about the fact that I think the Senate passed a great bill. I would love to have come to my desk a bill very similar to what the Senate passed.”

Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project called the House Judiciary Committee’s vote “very disappointing.”

“We are disappointed that they’re not even willing to discuss expanded decriminalization, let alone legalization, but the process will continue to other committees,” he said. “I guess it’s better than a defeat.”

"We are disappointed that they're not even willing to discuss expanded decriminalization, let alone legalization, but the process will continue to other committees." - Matt Simon, Marijuana Policy Project

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, stood behind the committee’s position Friday, despite personally believing the state “could go farther.”

“I think that the House Judiciary Committee has taken a lot of testimony. They have tried to understand what they felt comfortable moving forward with and I think it is likely is a reflection of the broader body,” Smith said. “Given the sensitivities around this issue, this is probably as far as that committee was willing to go.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he was “deeply troubled” by the House bill after working hard to pass legalization in the Senate. He said he had expected “more support from some in the House who had expressed support for marijuana legalization.”

“We hope to get to a conference committee and deal with the issues, but it’s very disappointing. To see one body put in a real forward-looking proposal and to have it rejected is disappointing,” Sears said.

The Senate still has a number of opportunities to force the House to consider its position, according to Sears.

"I'm not giving up the ship. We have a long way to go and a short time to get there." - Sen. Dick Sears

“We have a number of options available to us. There are a number of bills that are very important to the House Judiciary Committee that contain the word marijuana and those bills can certainly have things added to them,” he said. “I’m not giving up the ship. We have a long way to go and a short time to get there.”

The Senate could also hold up bills that the House Judiciary Committee wants, such as legislation that makes changes to license suspensions for civil violations.

“I don’t play those kind of games,” Sears said, winking at reporters.

Smith said the only must-pass measures left for the Legislature to deal with are the budget and tax bills and those are unlikely to be held up.

“My view is that to get out of here we need a budget and a tax bill. I appreciate that there will be a number of different avenues that will be tried to try to get the same place, but you can’t make people do things that they don’t want to do,” he said.

Neal Goswami is a reporter at the Vermont Press Bureau, where this story was originally published. It has been reposted here through a partnership with the bureau.