Vermont lawmakers have unexpectedly taken a marijuana legalization bill off of the House floor.
VT marijuana legalization debate will NOT happen today. Bill will move to Human Services Cmte, with support from Dem leadership. #vtpoli
— April McCullum (@april_mccullum) March 28, 2017
The House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on a bill to legalize low-level marijuana possession and homegrow on Tuesday afternoon, but that didn’t happen. The legislation was instead referred to the Committee on Human Services for further review.
As currently drafted, the bill, H. 170, would remove all penalties for possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivation of as many as two mature and four immature plants. It would not allow any form of marijuana sales.
The removal of the bill from the floor is just the latest setback for legalization advocates in Vermont.
Last year, the Senate approved, with support from then-Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), a full-scale legalization bill that included a taxed and regulated system of sales, but it later failed in the House.
So advocates decided to pursue a pared-down noncommercial approach this year.
The House Judiciary Committee initially scheduled the bill for a vote two weeks ago, but then took the legislation off the agenda without explanation amidst a lobbying effort from a national anti-legalization organization.
However, within a matter of days it was added back on and approved by the panel with a vote of 8-3.
On Tuesday afternoon, the House skipped over the legalization bill in its place on the agenda and then, when it got through the rest of the scheduled bills, broke for parties to hold caucus meetings.
When the full House reconvened — coincidentally, it was noted by Speaker Mitzi Johnson — at 4:20 PM, the bill was read and then referred back to the committee level.
House Dems to send #vt pot bill to Human Services Committee. It means they don't have votes to pass legalization.
— Terri Hallenbeck (@terrivt) March 28, 2017
While it is unknown if the bill will make it back to the floor, or whether it will be amended by the Human Services panel, the delay is potentially a good thing for legalization advocates. Several members expected to vote yes were not present in the chamber on Tuesday. That could have jeopardized what is expected to be a close floor vote, if and when it happens.
As currently drafted, the bill does not allow for any form of commercialization, but advocates believe that if it clears the House, the Senate may amend the legislation to include legal and regulated sales in line with the plan that chamber approved last year.
A separate bill now pending in the House, H. 490, would allow legal sales, but it hasn’t been scheduled for a vote.
If the House and Senate pass different forms of legalization, a conference committee made up of members from both chambers will reconcile the differences into a single bill for final approval.
Gov. Phil Scott (R), who was inaugurated in January, says he’s not necessarily opposed to cannabis law reform but would prefer that Vermont wait to get more experience from other states that have already ended prohibition. He also says he is not willing to sign any legalization bill until the state has in place better systems to detect and prevent impaired driving. It is unclear if he would veto the noncommercial legalization approach if sent to his desk by lawmakers.
Vermont has already legalized medical cannabis and decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.
A poll released this month found that 57 percent of the state’s voters support noncommercial legalization and that 54 percent favor a full taxed and regulated system of legal sales.