Vermont House Blocks Recreational Marijuana Legalization

May 3, 2016

Vermont’s long-awaited move toward marijuana legalization will take even longer.  The Vermont House passed a resolution this afternoon that gutted a Senate bill to legalize the possession of small amounts of pot for recreational use.

The Vermont House voted 121-to-28 against a Senate-passed plan to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana.

The fate of the recreational marijuana bill in the House chamber had been uncertain. Some House members supported legalization, but opposed the Senate language. They argued that the Senate-proposed system of licensing and taxing growers and retailers — and banning homegrown marijuana — was too commercial an approach for Vermont.

An amendment crafted over the weekend eliminated legalization and instead created a commission to study legalization, further decriminalized possession of pot and some growing, and increased anti-substance-abuse education.

Marijuana Policy Project New England Political Director Matt Simon says it’s been known for some time that the House did not agree with the Senate language.   “It's clear that prohibition is not going to end this year in Vermont. At the same time, it's been a remarkable educational experience for everybody in this building and moving into election season in the next session we're very optimistic that in 2017 that the legislature will revisit this. After the votes in Massachusetts and Maine, both states we think are likely to move forward with regulated markets, and it’s only a matter of time we feel until Vermont does take that step forward.”

Burlington Progressive Representative Chris Pearson has crafted legislation to legalize marijuana and supported the Senate version of the bill.  He is disappointed in the House vote.   “Our argument has been that prohibition doesn't work. We'd be better off treating marijuana the way we treat alcohol and tobacco. And very clearly the House only has about half the votes needed to move in that direction.  So it's extremely disappointing. And frankly it just doesn't accept reality that has millions and millions of dollars floating through Vermont’s economy and the illicit market and tens of thousands of Vermonters using marijuana. I mean you can't overlook those facts. Unfortunately it doesn't appear that public policy will match that reality this year.”

Milton Representative Republican Don Turner offered an amendment calling for a ballot initiative to be placed on the August primary ballot asking voters whether marijuana should be legalized.   “You guys want to know if Vermont wants it legalized?  Vote for my amendment.  This will give us an opportunity to say to Vermont we care what you have to say.”

One representative cited polling data showing a huge discrepancy in turnout between the primary and general elections.   “In 2012, 300,000 Vermonters voted in the general election.  One-sixth of that total voted in the primary.”

As a result, Matt Simon finds Turner’s amendment laughable.   “If you really want to know what the voters think you would suggest putting it on the November ballot when voter turnout is much larger.”

Turner’s proposal was defeated 97-51.  Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana by referendum.

Audio from the statehouse is courtesy of a Vermont Public Radio live stream.