Scott vetoes pot legalization, offers path forward

MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott has vetoed a marijuana legalization bill but said Wednesday he will reconsider signing it if lawmakers make changes during a veto session next month.

Scott’s announcement at a news conference Wednesday ended days of speculation about the bill’s fate, but it opened the door to even more intense lobbying and campaigning in the weeks leading up to the June 21 veto session.

Gov. Phil Scott speaks at a news conference where he announced his veto of S.22, a bill that would legalize marijuana in Vermont. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

It also halts — at least temporarily — the potential for Vermont to become the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use through the legislative process. Eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana, but all did so through voter referendums.

“I am returning this bill to the Legislature. I am, however, offering a path forward that takes a much more thorough look at what public health, safety and education policies are needed before Vermont moves toward a regulatory and revenue system for an adult-use marijuana market,” the governor said.

Scott, a first-term Republican was facing a midnight deadline. His five days of consideration were about to end after receiving the bill from the Legislature last week. He faced three options — sign it into law, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

The bill, S.22, would legalize the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, two mature marijuana plants and four immature plants. Legalization would not take effect until July 1, 2018, however. The bill also included a commission to craft legislation for lawmakers to consider next year that would create a regulated retail market for marijuana.

Lawmakers are unlikely to override the veto. The House passed the bill on a 79-66 vote, far short of the 100 votes needed to override in the 150-member chamber.

Scott said he is not philosophically opposed to the legislation. The bill needs changes before he will sign it, however.

The governor said he opposes a part of the bill that “appears to weaken penalties for the dispensing and sale of marijuana to minors.” He said the sections must be rewritten to ensure that such penalties are not scaled back

“Weakening these protections and penalties should be totally unacceptable to even the most ardent legalization advocates,” Scott said.

Meanwhile, the governor said he wants stronger penalties for using marijuana in vehicles and in the presence of minors. As passed by the Legislature, the bill creates a fine for marijuana use in a car that is equal to having an open container of alcohol.

“We must acknowledge that marijuana is not alcohol and it is not tobacco. How we protect children from the new classification of this substance is incredibly important,” Scott said.

Finally, Scott said he is dissatisfied with the commission create in the bill. The commission must have a broader range of professionals that includes representatives from the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Health, the Department of Taxes and members of the substance abuse prevention and treatment community.

The scope of the commission also needs to be broadened so they consider an impairment level for operating a vehicle, some kind of impairment testing mechanism, an education and prevention strategy for youth and a plan for continued monitoring and reporting on impacts to public health. The governor also wants a detailed estimate on how much it would cost for the state to operate a regulated market.

Under the bill the commission is required to issue a report in November, but Scott said he wants that time frame extended so they have at least one full year to complete their work because it is “a huge policy decision for us.”

“I think that we need to move a little bit slower,” he said.

If lawmakers address those concerns next month Scott said he would sign a revised bill.

“If they are willing to work with me to address my concerns in a new bill passed during the veto session this summer, there is a path forward on this issue,” he said. “They’ll have to adhere to the standards I’ve laid out. It will be fairly explicit.”

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, criticized Scott Wednesday for not working constructively with lawmakers on the bill during the legislative session, which adjourned last week.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson

“We know that prohibition does not work. The legislature put forth a modest, reasonable step in S.22 after ample discussion and extensive testimony in multiple committees,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that the governor chose to put his ideas on the table after adjournment, rather than work with the Legislature over the course of this session to include his ideas into the bill during the legislative session.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he plans to meet with some of the governor’s staff Thursday to better understand the governor’s requirements.

“I think we can probably work with him,” he said. “It depends on other members of the Senate, members of the House.”

Sears crafted S.22 as a compromise between the House and Senate positions. The Senate has voted twice in favor of a regulated retail market for marijuana, but the House has consistently rejected that approach. Sears’ compromise added the commission help the state move toward a regulated market and the Senate remains committed to that, he said.

Sen. Dick Sears

“My biggest want is that we get to a regulated system as soon as possible,” he said.

Laura Subin, director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, said she believes lawmakers and the governor can agree on a revised bill next month.

“While we’re disappointed that the governor didn’t decide to sign S.22, we’re very encouraged that he wants to work with the Legislature as soon as the veto session. We hope that they’re … going to come up with a good piece of legislation that reflects what the majority of Vermonters clearly want,” she said.

Subin said “Vermonters want to see marijuana policy reform happen” and the governor indicated he’s willing to work with lawmakers to achieve it. She said advocates for legalization will look to help find agreement.

“We are all concerned about youth safety and roadside safety. We share those values and we hope we can work with the governor and Legislature to come up with a proposal that reflects those priorities but also gets it done and we can see change happen soon, rather than later,” Subin said.

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive and Democrat who has advocated for legalization for many years, said he is “sad to see the governor disregard the will of most Vermonters and reduce individual liberties in our state.”

“Prohibition has failed and causes approximately 100,000 Vermonters to be labeled lawbreakers. Vermont is now lagging behind other states in the region and is missing opportunities to capture revenue from an underground market that would allow us to address highway safety, drug education and treatment, and other needed state investments to reduce the temptation of drug use,” Zuckerman said. “For the governor to veto this bill over the makeup of the commission seems very short-sighted.”

The veto session scheduled for June 21 is expected to last one or two days. Passing a revised version of the bill will take longer if House Republicans do not agree to suspend House rules to expedite the process.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, indicated Wednesday the GOP caucus is unlikely to agree to a rules suspension. He said he supports the governor’s veto and a majority of the caucus opposes the legislation.

“I see no reason to expedite or circumvent the legislative process by suspending rules to pass S.22 during a one- or two-day veto session. The majority should consider the far-reaching health and safety consequences of this issue in January 2018, thus allowing ample time for a comprehensive and thoughtful debate among various stakeholders,” Turner said.

Scott faced intense pressure from opponents and proponents since lawmakers passed the bill earlier this month. The governor’s office has been flooded with calls and email messages, mostly from proponents urging him to sign the bill. A number of newspaper editorial boards also urged Scott to sign the bill.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read Gov. Scott’s veto message below:

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