Vt. House Passes Pot Legalization Compromise in Face of Federal Threat

Published: 1/4/2018 11:33:01 PM
Modified: 1/4/2018 11:35:11 PM

The Vermont House passed a bill on Thursday to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, defeating a host of amendments including one that likely would have cost the governor’s support.

The House vote came on the same day that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a policy that shielded states with legalized marijuana from federal action.

The bill seems well on its way to becoming law. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said on Thursday night he expected the bill would hit the Senate floor and gain approval as early as Wednesday.

The Senate passed essentially the same legislation in June, and the governor has said he would sign it.

The House passed H.511 by a vote of 81 to 63 on Thursday. It legalizes the possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana and two mature and four immature marijuana plants by people 21 or older.

House Judiciary Chairwoman Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, called the bill “an important criminal justice milestone.” She added that it removes criminal consequences for the “responsible” use of marijuana by adults.

Rep. Brian Savage, R-Swanton, spoke on the floor shortly after news broke about Sessions’ action. Savage called for putting off a vote on the measure until Jan. 18, which is when a commission established by Gov. Phil Scott is expected to offer recommendations regarding marijuana legalization.

Savage’s suggestion met the same fate as other amendments offered throughout the day, failing to gain the support needed to pass.

“Legalization is the right step for Vermont to take right now,” Judiciary Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, said. “This moves us from decriminalization of a small amount of marijuana to legalization of the same amount, and allows those who are inclined to grow their own supply. It’s a small incremental step, and the right step for Vermont to take right now.”

Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, said he didn’t see the need to rush the legislation through on the second day of the session. He said there were many much more important matters to address, including a projected 9.4 cent increase in the statewide property tax.

“What is the rush and the stampede to do this?” he asked, adding the message that is being sent to Vermonters is: “Never mind the 9.4 cent tax increase that you’re facing, we’re going to let you smoke a doobie. Maybe when you smoke a joint you won’t feel that 9.4 cents as much.”

Debate on the House floor began around 10 a.m. and didn’t end until 6 p.m. There was about a three-hour break to make way in the chamber for Scott to deliver his State of the State address.

The discussion was at times lighthearted or serious, other times moving or testy. Opponents questioned the effect legalization would have on highway safety and said it sent the wrong message to the state’s youth about the use of marijuana.

Supporters called it a “cautious” and “conservative” approach to legalization, stopping short of creating a full tax-and-regulate retail approach.

“Substance use should be treated as a health care matter, not a crime,” Rep. Brian China, P-Burlington, said as the debate drew to a close. “Let this be another step toward the end of the war on drugs.”

The vote on Thursday capped a fast-paced two days at the start of the 2018 legislative session. The House Judiciary Committee on the session’s first day advanced the bill, then moved on to acting on a slew of amendments.

Supporters of the bill appeared steadfast in their effort to ensure the legislation advances without any substantial changes that could endanger support from the governor.

Scott has said he would sign the bill, following his veto last session of a measure that also would have legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana and permitted the cultivation of a few plants.

In vetoing that legislation, the governor suggested ways it could be changed to gain his support.

The latest legislation, H.511, was a compromise reached by the heads of the Senate and House Judiciary panels and Scott’s administration just prior to a one-day veto session in June.

To address some of the concerns the governor raised, the bill creates criminal penalties for using pot in a vehicle with children and increases penalties for providing marijuana to anyone underage.

However, despite having reached a compromise, a move to take up the legislation in the one-day veto session failed to gain the needed support.

The effort by the bill’s supporters to avoid tweaking the legislation and retain the governor’s support resulted in an interesting twist during the afternoon session Thursday.

That’s when House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, who has opposed marijuana legalization, proposed an amendment that would create a tax-and-regulate structure.

Turner said “the writing was on the wall” and the “wheels had been greased,” clearing the path for marijuana legalization. It would be better, he said, to do it through a tax-and-regulate structure than by H.511, which he called the “worst possible” way of legalizing pot.

With a tax and regulations, he said, money could be raised to help pay for “prevention, education and countermarketing programs” as public safety initiatives.

“This amendment is my attempt to make a bad bill better,” he said, adding that it wasn’t a political maneuver but a recognition that he lost.

His measure called for retail marijuana to be taxed at 25 percent, with the first legal marijuana sales by licensed retailers on July 1, 2019. In its first year, he estimated that $15 million to $20 million could be raised through the tax.

Also, Turner’s proposal would have allowed a municipality to prohibit “a marijuana establishment” by a majority vote at an annual or special meeting.

Supporters of H.511 countered that now wasn’t the right time to adopt such a tax-and-regulate system and that attaching it as an amendment wasn’t the right method.

“It’s a completely different thing,” Conquest said of Turner’s amendment.

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