MONTPELIER — The Vermont House on Tuesday soundly rejected a Senate proposal to legalize marijuana and create a regulated retail market for the drug, and even fell short of decriminalizing the possession and cultivation of two marijuana plants.
The House did manage to salvage a commission that will study the legalization of marijuana and report its findings back to the Legislature, likely setting up another push at legalization next year after the November election.
The House first voted 121 to 28 Tuesday against the Senate’s proposal, which was strongly backed by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. The Senate passed the bill on a 17 to 12 vote.
Rep. Chris Pearson, a Progressive from Burlington, was among the slim minority of House members who supported the Senate’s language. He repeatedly questioned why Vermonters are free to drink alcohol but not legally smoke or possess marijuana.
“Our constituents want to know, why do we sit and enjoy delicious Vermont beer and frown on cannabis use?” Pearson said. “These are not deadbeats. These are professionals, with advanced degrees who earn nice salaries.”
Pearson’s point was reinforced when lawmakers took an afternoon break for a reception honoring the retirement of a longtime legislative staff person where many of them sipped on champagne.
After dispatching with the Senate’s proposal, the Democratic-led House then rejected an amendment billed by Democratic House leaders as a compromise to decriminalize the possession and cultivation of up to two marijuana plants on a 70 to 77 vote. Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Newbury, proposed the amendment to decriminalize the possession and cultivation of two marijuana plants, create a commission to study the issue of legalization and boost education programs about the use of marijuana.
Conquest said the state decriminalized the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana in 2013 but “never addressed how they might get that marijuana.” Vermonters must “enter a criminal realm” and “get it from someone who is committing a crime,” Conquest said.
Rep. Sam Young, D-Glover, urged the House to support the decriminalization proposal because the country’s policy of prohibiting marijuana has only made “criminals out of good neighbors.”
“What good has ever come from the criminalization of the drug?” Young asked his colleagues. “Should we double down? Should we spend another $1.3 trillion? This war has failed us. It has torn apart families and communities and I feel we should have some measure of compassion for those 60,000 to 80,000 Vermonters that use marijuana.”
Conquests proposal was split into several parts and the House approved the commission.
The votes Tuesday were a major setback for advocates and supporters of legalization, and for Shumlin, who had been calling for weeks on the House to take up the Senate proposal.
Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith had been warning since February that his chamber did not have the votes to pass legalization. And after the compromise language was developed in recent days, Smith warned again that it was not sure to pass.
“Last week it was clear to me that despite my view that the policy is broken it was not clear that we had a majority of legislators who felt that was true. I was calling it like I saw it. I told the administration, I told the Senate, that I thought it was a bad idea that we take a vote on this bill. They pushed very hard and they decided to put a vote on the floor,” Smith said.
Shumlin did push for a vote and the administration said it was working to secure the votes. The governor issued a statement Tuesday evening expressing his disappointment with the House.
“The War on Drugs policy of marijuana prohibition has failed. I want to thank those House members who recognize that and worked to move this issue forward. It is incredibly disappointing, however, that a majority of the House has shown a remarkable disregard for the sentiment of most Vermonters who understand that we must pursue a smarter policy when it comes to marijuana in this state,” he said.
Smith said he, too, was “disappointed that we can’t move further but it is the reality of where people are right now.” He said he would have killed the bill “in March, not May,” if he was not interested in advancing the issue.
“The reality is that we were trying to move the issue forward in the House and we were struggling every step of the way, and I think that was demonstrated by the real difficulty that the Judiciary Committee had in reaching any consensus on any bill,” he said. “It wasn’t for lack of trying. We pushed it as hard as we could.”
The House first received the Senate proposal in late February, but the House never embraced it. While the Senate took up the issue last fall, holding hearings at the State House and several public hearings around the state, the House did not embrace the issue. House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, was not interested in taking on the issue and even resisted taking up the issue after the Senate passed S.241, according to several House members.
The House Judiciary Committee eventually voted to strike it all and replaced it with a commission to study the issue. The House Ways and Means Committee then further amended the bill to legalize the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana and the possession and cultivation of up to two marijuana plants. But that proposal could not clear the House Appropriations Committee.
That’s when Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, attached the Senate’s legalization bill to a House-passed bill dealing with criminal procedures.
House Republicans attempted to derail Conquest’s amendment several times Tuesday, including proposing a non-binding referendum on the August primary ballot that would replace it. The House rejected that proposal, however, with many members saying such a referendum would “abdicate” their responsibility as lawmakers.
The commission approved by the House Tuesday will now go back to the Senate for its approval. With lawmakers looking to adjourn the legislative biennium on Saturday, it is unlikely that any further changes can be made. That would require suspending the rules to advance the legislative process and House leaders say they will not be able to secure enough votes for that.