Vermont Senate Approves Marijuana Legalization

By Tom Angell | April 21, 2017

For the second year in a row, Vermont’s Senate has voted in favor of legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana.

By a vote of 21-9 on Friday, senators amended a House-passed bill on drug possession to include a full-scale system of taxed and regulated cannabis sales.

“Prohibition has not worked,” Sen. Jeanette White (D), marijuana amendment’s sponsor, said in a debate before the vote. “For many years we’ve known that.”

The amended proposal, which would also allow people in Vermont to grow cannabis at home, faces an uncertain road to passage in the House, where narrower noncommercial legislation to simply remove penalties for low-level possession and homegrow has undergone a series of fits and starts this year.

The Senate also approved a legalization bill last year by a vote of 17-12 with the support of then-Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), but it later failed in the House.

This year, the House bill to remove penalties for possession and homegrow was expected to pass that chamber but was abruptly taken off the floor last month amid concerns that the absence of several supportive members could have jeopardized a close vote.

The legislation, H. 170, was sent back to the committee level, where it has received a couple of hearings but no additional votes.

Now, senators frustrated with House inaction have forced the issue by adding the legalization language to the other chamber’s bill. It is unclear how the House will react.

The Senate-approved language will allow adults over 21 years of age to legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana and to cultivate two mature and four immature cannabis plants. The bill imposes an excise tax of 25 percent on legal sales. (See below for further details.)

New 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, though it is unclear if he would go so far as to veto marijuana legislation if sent to his desk by lawmakers.

It takes 20 votes to override a gubernatorial veto, and the Senate now has a working base of at least 21 lawmakers willing to vote for legalization.

Vermont has already legalized medical cannabis and decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.

A poll released last 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.

The House drug possession bill that now includes the marijuana legalization language requires one more procedural vote in the Senate before it is officially returned to its originating chamber.

Vermont’s legislature operates on a biennium basis, so any progress made this year could be built upon in 2018.

Here are some other details on what the Senate’s legalization proposal would do:

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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