Vermont Legal Marijuana Compromise Emerges

Published on June 12, 2017, By Tom Angell

Marijuana News Politics

The effort to legalize marijuana in Vermont this year has taken “more twists and turns than a murder mystery novel,” in the words of local public radio host Mitch Wertlieb.

After a series of fits and starts in the state’s House of Representatives, and philosophical disagreements with the Senate over what the end of prohibition could look like, lawmakers finally sent a legalization proposal to Gov. Phil Scott (R) last month.

But Scott vetoed the bill. However, in doing so he laid out several changes that, if adopted by the legislature, would make him feel comfortable enough to sign a legalization bill into law.

Now, details are emerging about a revised proposal that lawmakers have crafted which they believe can be passed during a special veto session scheduled to begin on June 21.

According to a report from the Vermont Press Bureau, key House and Senate leaders sent the governor their new bill late last week.

On Monday, Scott’s spokesman said the governor is “encouraged to get a good counterproposal,” indicating that he intends to respond to the lawmakers later in the day.

In a Vermont Public Radio segment hosted on Monday by Wertlieb, Sen. Joe Benning (R) said that the legislation is “close enough” to what Scott wanted and that only minor “tweaks” to its language are expected.

Like the previously vetoed legislation, the new bill would legalize possession of one ounce of marijuana and allow home cultivation of two mature cannabis plants and four seedlings, effective July 1, 2018. It would also create a study commission to examine the possible future legalization and taxation of marijuana sales.

To address Scott’s concerns about driving under the influence and children’s access to marijuana, the revised legislation enacts new civil fines for use of cannabis in a vehicle by a passenger, use of marijuana in a vehicle with a minor present and cultivating cannabis at a child care center or afterschool program. It also clarifies what constitutes dispensing marijuana and defines public spaces in which marijuana use would be prohibited. And, it allows police officers to seize marijuana that exceeds allowed possession limits.

Finally, the new legislation changes the composition of the marijuana commercialization study committee, allowing the governor to appoint more of its members. And now, instead of issuing a report to the legislature by November 1, 2017, the panel’s recommendations will be due by January 15 of next year.

It’s an open question as to whether legalization supporters will be able to pass the legislation during what is expected to be a two- or three-day veto override session this month. Moving a bill that quickly would normally require a suspension of the rules, and House Republican leader Don Turner has already said he doesn’t support doing so. If he convinces roughly 40 colleagues from his 53-member GOP caucus, he can block the bill’s advancement.

However, Turner has indicated that he will allow his members to make their own decision on the matter and doesn’t expect them to vote in a bloc.

And Scott has said that if he reaches a compromise agreement with legalization supporters he will “advocate” that members of his party allow it to move forward.

Aside from suspending the rules to advance legalization as a standalone bill, there are several other mechanisms the legislature can use to send Scott revised marijuana legislation.

They could attach legalization to the state’s budget, which is the the main legislation lawmakers are holding the special session to address in the first place. It is unlikely that Republican lawmakers would force a government shutdown over marijuana.

They could also extend the short session by holding a series of “token sessions” during which only a few members are present but which would advance through a sufficient number of calendar days to allow a standalone legalization bill to come to the floor under regular order.

And if none of those options come to pass, lawmakers would be expected to take up the issue again when the legislature convenes for the second half of his biennium in January.

A poll released in March found that 57 percent of the state’s voters support noncommercial legalization along the lines of the current proposal. The survey also showed that 54 percent favor a full taxed and regulated system of legal sales akin to the approach of separate legislation approved by the Senate earlier this year and in 2016.

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