By Alan J. Keays
A bill legalizing the recreational use of marijuana has cleared the last hurdle in the Vermont Legislature Wednesday afternoon on a voice vote in the Senate.
The measure, H.511, now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Phil Scott for approval. He has previously said he would sign the legislation.
With Scott’s signature, Vermont would become the first state to legalize recreational marijuana through legislation, rather than by voter initiative.
Last week, after several hours of debate, the House passed the legislation 81-63.
The measure legalizes the possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana and two mature and four immature marijuana plants by people 21 or older.
Once the bill cleared the House last week, Senate passage was virtually assured since that chamber approved essentially the same legislation in June.
The House vote, 81-63, came on the same day that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a policy that shielded states with legalized marijuana from federal action.
Shelburne’s state Reps. Jessica Brumsted and Kate Webb took opposite positions. Brumsted voted against the bill; Webb voted for it.
House Judiciary Chair Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, said the bill was “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 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.
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 that 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.”
The House debate last week 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 Cina, P-Burlington, said as the debate drew to a close. “Let this be another step toward the end of the war on drugs.”
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.
Attempts were made to try to adopt a tax-and-regulate framework as part of the bill but they failed. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he would support such an effort but that likely would not happen this year.
“I don’t think there’s enough support in the House to pass it,” Sears said of the tax-and-regulate system. “I’m hopeful that in 2019 whoever is in the Legislature will move forward with a tax and regulate system.”
A marijuana legalization commission appointed by the governor isn’t expected to issue its final report on the subject until December, seven months after the session closes and a month after the 2018 election season.
Shelburne News staff contributed to this report.