MONTPELIER — The prospect of legalizing marijuana this year is likely over, “barring a miracle,” according to Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe.
Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, made that comment in a briefing for reporters Tuesday on legislation the Senate still hopes to pass this year. Ashe, and Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said they are hoping to find some way to make progress on legalization this year as the House continues to see its bill languish in committee.
But progress means passing something “that reflects the Senate’s interests,” according to Ashe. He said he is not inclined to support any legislation that does not at least include a commission tasked with creating a legal market, he said.
“There would have to be some meaningful steps beyond legislative study committees looking at it yet again that are productive steps toward establishing a regulated system,” Ashe said.
The House bill, H.170, seeks to legalize the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, as well as the cultivation of two mature marijuana plants. The House Judiciary Committee sent the bill to the House floor, but House leaders redirected it to the Human Services committee when it became clear that support for the bill was questionable.
Now, the Senate is considering ways to move forward, Ashe said.
“We had every anticipation of receiving a bill some number of weeks ago. We had hoped that having a bill several weeks ago would have given us the opportunity to have a much longer discussion between House and Senate about the right way to approach the issue,” Ashe said.
Ashe said the House Judiciary “hit the ground running” earlier this year but the push for legalization has since stalled. Making matters even more murky, is that the Senate is not prepared to accept the House plan even if it manages to pass. The Senate, Ashe said, prefers a more robust legal, regulated market for pot.
White was more direct in her criticism of the House’s failure to pass a bill.
“I think that we’re just all very disappointed that the House just didn’t do anything,” White said. “I don’t know if they didn’t have their sneakers on, or what, but they … fell somewhere in the middle and didn’t do what we expected them to do. So we didn’t get anything, so there is nothing for us to respond to.”
Still, White said the Senate is not ready to declare it game over.
“Game not over,” she said. “We’re regrouping and trying to figure out what we’ll do now. It is so disappointing that the House couldn’t pull something together to give to us, even if it wasn’t exactly what they wanted.”
Ashe said he and other leaders are considering their options. Doing nothing is one option, but that would mean “another year deferred in terms of progress.” Another option is to send over to the House in the coming days a version of the regulated market it passed last year and let that be the bill the House can consider next year during the second half of the legislative biennium.
“The time we have remaining, we could send the bill over. That would be, if you will, the bill hanging out there in the off-season,” he said.
A third option could be to take the language of the House bill and attach it to something the House has already passed and sent to the Senate — perhaps with some changes.
“That was not the preferred approach of the Senate. I believe it has an advantage in that it’s a much simpler bill,” Ashe said. “The dilemma is that it really enforces the black market approach rather than really taking the next step that many states have been doing.”
Ashe noted that Massachusetts, Maine and even Canada are moving forward with legalization. That means Vermonters will be able to obtain legal marijuana nearby and bring it back to Vermont.
“We will either help dictate the terms of play or they will be dictated to us,” Ashe said.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, suggested his committee could look to attach legalization language to a bill the House has already sent over to the Senate. At least two bills, one dealing with the penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs and another dealing with traffic safety, could be used as vehicles to do that, he said.
“If the judiciary committee is ready to do that I would ask them,” Ashe said. “It’s not out of the question that I would ask them to do that.”
Timing is a major challenge to legalizing marijuana this year. The Senate’s morning committees, including Judiciary, will stop meeting at the end of the week as the Senate prepares to focus on completing its work on money bills in anticipation of ending this year’s legislative session on May 6. That means anything the Senate chooses to do would need to happen in the coming days.
Another hurdle is the gap between what the House is considering and what the Senate wants. Ashe suggested that the House bill is “not a worthy next step.”
“It does little to nothing toward moving to a more rational, regulated system. It might have benefits on the criminal justice side, and I don’t mean to minimize that, but it’s really not where the spirit of the Senate has been,” he said.
Meanwhile, the bill passed by the Senate last year that would have created a regulated, legal market for marijuana received about 25 votes in the 150-member House.
White said she believes very few House members were knowledgable about last year’s Senate bill. She said it would find more support if they took the time to learn about it.
“I don’t think that they were really have a legitimate discussion on the Senate bill because I don’t think that most of them knew what was in there,” she said.
If the House passes its bill, or if the Senate sends its own legalization language to the House, the likelihood of anything reaching the governor’s desk this year are minimal. White said that is a shame.
“People are tired of this conversation going on and on and on and it’s something that we just need to do,” White said. “We’ve been talking about this forever and people out there are just tired of us dragging our feet and not getting anything done.”
Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, the House Assistant Majority Leader who is tasked with counting votes in the House, said the Senate’s posturing will not change how the House approaches its work on legalization.
“There’s always challenges procedurally between the bodies about timing. I think our job is to do the work well. If the Senate doesn’t have time to take it up now they can take it up when they want to. We can’t really control that. We can only aim to do our best work,” Toleno said.
It is possible that comments made by Ashe and White could change how members of the House feel about moving forward, Toleno said.
“I haven’t seen what the ramifications are yet. I may find out today that there’s a shift in their thinking based on the Senate’s language,” he said. “Certainly, I think my message would be the same to the members of our caucus, which is our job is to do our work and to let the Senate figure out its own plan for where it wants to be.”