It turns out that Vermont will not legalize marijuana in 2017. But advocates are hopeful that enormous progress made this year puts them in a position to end prohibition early in 2018.
After a series of victories and setbacks, the fight to legalize cannabis in the Green Mountain State came to an end — at least for the rest of this year — on Wednesday.
During a short special session during which the legislature convened mainly to pass an annual budget, supportive lawmakers failed to find enough votes to suspend House rules so that a marijuana bill could be considered on a expedited basis.
— Kyle Midura (@KyleMidura) June 21, 2017
Over the course this year, Vermont’s House of Representatives and Senate painstakingly worked out philosophical disagreements about what legalization should look like. Whereas the Senate initially approved a bill that included a system of taxed and regulated cannabis sales, the House seemed comfortable only with a noncommercial approach that simply removed penalties for low-level possession and homegrow.
The two chambers ultimately settled on legislation that would legalize possession of one ounce of marijuana and allow home cultivation of two mature plants and four seedlings, effective July 1, 2018, and, in a nod to the Senate’s desire to move toward more robust regulation of the market, create a study commission to examine the possible future legalization and taxation of sales.
Lawmakers approved the proposal and sent it to Gov. Phil Scott (R) last month.
But Scott vetoed the legislation. 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.
House and Senate leaders, alongside outside advocates and lobbyists, spent the last several weeks engaged in closed-door negotiations with Scott’s staff.
Pro-legalization forces made several concessions to the governor’s concerns, moving to add new penalties 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, among other changes concerning police powers. They also revised the makeup of the study commission by adding more executive branch officials, in line with Scott’s request.
In the early evening, the Senate suspended the rules and enacted the bill by a voice vote, without debate.
But House Republicans, led by Minority Leader Don Turner, weren’t willing to get on board. By a vote of 78 in favor and 63 against, the chamber rejected a move to allow the legislation to proceed under expedited consideration.
Moving a bill as quickly as would have been needed during the short session required a vote of three-fourths of the House. Support from 107 representatives was needed given the number of members present.
While Scott previously pledged that he would “advocate” that members of his party allow the compromise to move forward, it is not at all clear that he applied any pressure on GOP lawmakers over the matter in recent weeks.
“I’m deeply disappointed that Governor Scott refused to honor his alleged commitment to negotiating and passing a compromise during the veto session. Legislative leaders and advocates gave the governor everything he asked for, but he steadfastly refused to get to ‘Yes,'” Dave Silberman, a Vermont-based attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate, told MassRoots in an interview.
“As the undisputed statewide leader of the Vermont Republicans, it was incumbent upon Gov. Scott to deliver the Republicans for a rules suspension, but he refused to so much as lift a finger,” Silberman said. “Perhaps Governor Scott is expecting voters to be confused by his calculated equivocation on this issue, but I suspect Vermonters will see right through this in 2018.”
In Vermont, governors serve two-year terms, and Scott is up for reelection next year.
Scott previously said that if the legislature failed to enact a marijuana bill he would create a study commission to examine legalization issues by executive order. It is unknown if he still intends to do that, or when.
A poll released in March found that 57 percent of the state’s voters support noncommercial legalization along the lines of the House-Senate compromise 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.
Despite the setback for 2017, Vermont’s legislature operates on a biennium, and advocates expect that progress achieved this year will be built upon when lawmakers reconvene in January.
Majorities in both chambers of the legislature and the governor have now agreed that marijuana should be legalized in some fashion. When lawmakers come back to Montpelier early next year, it won’t be necessary to suspend the rules, which requires a supermajority vote. Without the need to rush, legalization legislation can move forward under regular order, which only requires a bare majority to pass bills.
“Vermont is poised to make history by becoming the first state in which the legislature and governor end the disastrous policy of marijuana prohibition,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “Just over a year from now, adults will have the same freedoms to grow and possess cannabis that our neighbors in Maine and Massachusetts enjoy.”