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Vermont House Rejects Marijuana Reforms

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The effort to make Vermont the next state to legalize marijuana was soundly defeated on the floor of the state’s House of Representatives on Tuesday.

By a vote of 121 – 28, representatives rejected a proposal to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana sales which the Senate passed in February.

The House also voted 70 – 77 against a separate measure to allow Vermonters to grow up to two cannabis plants at home without fear of criminal charges. Under the amendment, people caught cultivating small amounts would have instead faced civil fines that are identical to those for mere possession under the state’s current decriminalization law.

Rep. Chip Conquest, who sponsored the expanded decriminalization measure, described it as as a way to “rationalize our existing decriminalization statutes.”

When legislators removed criminal penalties for possession in 2013, Conquest said, “We never addressed how [users]might get that marijuana. By not doing that, we’ve said that those people need to enter a criminal realm. They need to get it from someone who is committing a crime.”

But with the House defeat of both the proposed commercial legalization and home cultivation decriminalization, cannabis consumers will continue to have to supply their product from the black market.

The House did approve legislation to create an advisory commission to look into the possible future full legalization of cannabis in the state and “propose a comprehensive regulatory and revenue structure that establishes controlled access to marijuana in a manner that, when compared to the current illegal marijuana market, increases public safety and reduces harm to public health.”

The commission’s recommendations would be due by December 15, potentially setting up a more robust push to end prohibition during the 2017 legislative session.

Further legislative maneuvering is still needed before the measure is sent to the desk of Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has voiced support for full legalization, including in his State of the State address this year.

The passage of the full legalization proposal by the Senate earlier this year gave marijuana law reform advocates hope that Vermont could become the first state to replace cannabis prohibition with a regulated market by the act of a state legislature instead of via a voter initiative on the ballot.

But following the Senate vote, the legalization bill, S. 241, has faced roadblocks in several House committees.

First, the chamber’s Judiciary Committee took the Senate-passed bill and completely gutted it. The panel’s chair initially proposed replacing the plan to legalize, tax and regulate sales with a simple decriminalization of home cultivation of up to two cannabis plants. She also pushed for the state to create a commission to review a possible future legalization of marijuana commerce. But the full committee wasn’t even willing to go that far. Instead, they rejected allowing homegrown marijuana and approved only the idea of a study commission.

The Ways and Means Committee then took up the bill and put the home cultivation piece back in.

But the legislation has since languished in the House Appropriations Committee, where it hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing or the vote it would need to make it to the floor.

As a result, marijuana law reform supporters have been scrambling over the past few weeks to find legislative maneuvers to keep legalization alive.

Last week, the Senate amended a separate House-passed bill on criminal procedures by attaching the marijuana legalization language, sending it back in an effort to force representatives to deal with marijuana on the floor in light of the committee holdup.

The House action on Tuesday concerned that bill, H. 858, which will now head back to the Senate for a vote on agreeing to the House’s changes. If senators are not willing to accept the current House version, there could be a conference committee made up of three members from each chamber who would negotiate and iron out the differences to come up with a single proposal to send back to the full bodies for final passage.

At least one key senator isn’t happy with the House action. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears used an expletive to characterize the proposed decriminalization expansion as not good enough, saying it wasn’t “a compromise.”

Looking ahead, if the study commission that would be created by the House bill ends up recommending legalization, that could force lawmakers to take a serious look at broader legislation next year.

Vermont has already commissioned one study on legalization. In 2014, the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill requiring the state secretary of administration to examine possible models for post-prohibition marijuana policies. The resulting report, which the state commissioned from the RAND Corporation, was released last year. It did not take a position on whether marijuana should be legalized but instead laid out several possible systems for regulating the cannabis industry.

The House on Tuesday also rejected a proposal to place a nonbinding referendum on the August primary election ballot to ask voters, “Should Vermont legalize marijuana for recreational use?” That amendment was defeated by a vote of 51 – 97.

Photo Courtesy of Claudio A.Neves.

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