Crime and Justice

House to take up marijuana legalization for the first time Monday

The marijuana legalization issue will come to the House floor for the first time early next week.

On Friday House Speaker Shap Smith said that H.858, the miscellaneous criminal procedure bill that the Senate recently amended to include the full text of S.241, will be up for a vote Monday.

Smith says he wants representatives to weigh in on the Senate’s proposal to create a legalized and regulated market — and to consider a proposal from House Ways and Means that would legalize and license home grown pot.

The Speaker, however, stood by his previous assertion that neither proposal has enough the support to pass the House.

Smith said that it has been clear to House leadership that there is not consensus around legalization.

“And people have misinterpreted it as a desire to stall or kill the bill,” Smith said. “And I just don’t think that I want that misinterpretation out there anymore and I think many others don’t want that out there. So if people want a vote on it, then they’re going to get it.”

Pushing the issue on the floor, he said, could actually work against pro-legalization advocates. The reverberations of a negative vote in the House this year could dissuade legislators in the near future from taking the issue up again, according to Smith.

There are some discussions around alternative approaches to the marijuana legalization issue that could garner House support, Smith said. One option would be to put a non-binding referendum question on the ballot in November.

Non-binding referenda have been used in similar cases, according to Smith. Vermonters, for example, weighed in on the issue of temperance several times in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The purpose of a referendum would be to give lawmakers a sense of the level of support for legalized marijuana in their districts and statewide.

As the session winds down, Smith said that he does not see marijuana legalization as ranking among the most important initiatives of the year. He pointed to the budget bill, the education yield tax bill, the bill to reform suspended driver’s license policy and others as more significant.

Smith said that the pot issue will impact many Vermonters, but said the state has already decriminalized marijuana.

“Legalizing will take it the next step,” Smith said. “But if we don’t legalize it this year, I think it’ll have less impact than many of the other issues that we’re talking about.”

The Senate sent over the marijuana legislation Wednesday after Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, attached the full text of the marijuana legalization legislation to H.858 in hopes the House would take it up before the end of the session.

The Senate passed the pot bill back in February on a vote of 17 to 12. The bill would allow Vermonters to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for recreational use, and would create a system of licensed growers and retailers through the state.

The Senate’s marijuana legislation has reached a standstill in the House Appropriations Committee. Sears says he wanted to prod the House to take a floor vote.

“I’m hoping they will deal with the bill that we sent them this week and that they will have an up or down vote on the bill,” Sears said Friday. “There’s nothing else controversial in the bill, they can vote to concur or not concur and it will give us an idea of where they are at.”

Sears was working all channels to get a vote on S. 241, and there was even speculation that he might attach the pot bill to second piece of legislation on Friday in a blitz to goose the House. No such action occurred.

The bill Sears was thinking of amending with the pot legislation was H.571, which increases fees and penalties for DUI infractions while eliminating license points for other less serious driving penalties. The senate passed the bill unanimously out of the chamber Friday.

The bill broadly aims to make it easier to pay traffic tickets, in the hope that fewer residents will have their driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay fines.

“We are looking to reduce the number of suspensions, not increase them,” Sears said.

The bill would also reinstate driver’s licenses for those who lost licenses for failure to settle civil infractions, including underage tobacco use, alcohol and marijuana violations.

The mention of marijuana in the bill gave Sears an opening to assert that the Senate legalization provisions were germane.

On Friday, Sears promised that no matter what action the House took on Monday, he would not send S. 241 over to the chamber again. He added, though, that “some other senator might do it.”

Sen. David Zuckerman, D/P-Chittenden, who is an ardent supporter of legalization, said there was no need to send S.241 over to the House again as long as the chamber held a vote.

“A vote on the floor of the House will give Vermonters an understanding of where each of their legislators sit, both in the Senate and the House,” Zuckerman said. “And I think that’s important because a majority of Vermonters support changing our cannabis laws.”

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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