The House put off a vote on a controversial marijuana legalization bill Tuesday, sending the legislation to another committee.
The bill, H.170, which would legalize adult possession of limited amounts of marijuana, was scheduled for a vote on the House floor Tuesday. Many expected the vote to be a close one.
Amid an apparent lack of sufficient support on the floor, the House sent the bill to the Human Services Committee. Whether the bill will come back out of committee this year is unclear.
Uncertainty about support for the bill stalled the measure in the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month. But the panel got the go-ahead from leadership last week and passed the bill out on a vote of 8 to 3.
The legislation was a pared-down version of a legalization bill that passed the Senate last year. The current bill does not include a proposal for a taxed, regulated system, as has been implemented in Colorado and other states; instead, it resembles a model in place in Washington, D.C.
The proposal would simply lift all civil and criminal penalties for adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana or two mature plants. Possession of up to 2 ounces or three plants would garner civil penalties, while criminal penalties would apply for greater amounts.
The bill was expected to come up late in the day after the House moved through a lengthy agenda of other work. Late in the afternoon, when H.170 was the only bill left on the calendar, the House broke for a surprise caucus.
In a meeting room downstairs, Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, told the Democratic Caucus that leadership decided to back a motion to send the bill to the House Human Services Committee for further review.
“We want to do this right, and so that’s what we’re going to do,” Krowinski said to other lawmakers.
Krowinski said she does not believe sending the legislation to committee means it is dead.
“Killing it would be having it die on the floor,” Krowinski said. “What this is is keeping the conversation going about whether legalizing marijuana is where the majority of the support is in the body.”
House leadership had been tallying support for the legislation, which was expected to be tight. Some lawmakers said a few key absences derailed the expected vote.
After Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, reported the bill on the floor, Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, stood and moved that the bill be sent to the Human Services Committee for further review of education and prevention measures targeting youth. The House approved the motion on a voice vote, with some opposition.
Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, an opponent of the bill, was expected to offer three amendments on the floor. All three would have delayed implementation of legalization so that it would be triggered by other events.
One amendment would have required more efforts to prevent youth marijuana use. Another would have required the availability of a roadside sobriety test, akin to those used for alcohol. The third would have tied legalization to changes in the federal drug classification of marijuana.
After the House sent the bill to committee, Browning was in the hallway celebrating the move as a victory.
“These are the same points I brought up last year,” Browning said. “What did they think, I was going to go away?”
She welcomed scrutiny of youth marijuana use prevention efforts by House Human Services, but she also said she believes the proposal needs to be examined by the Transportation Committee.
Browning said she felt the House had not sufficiently vetted the proposal.
“I think it’s a failure of due diligence, and I think by sending it to committee they’re admitting it,” Browning said.
House Judiciary Chair Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, said the move keeps the conversation going. She said she is encouraged by prevention work the Department of Health has started in the last year and hopes others will be as well.
She is optimistic the bill will continue to move this year.
Unlike states where legalization was implemented by ballot measure, Vermont can take the time to make sure the state does what’s needed to “get it right,” she said.
“We’re lucky that we can take a deliberative approach and answer those questions,” Grad said.
Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, chair of the Human Services Committee, said people are concerned about prevention. Asked her plans for the future of the bill shortly after the announcement from Democratic leadership, Pugh replied that the development was fresh.
“This is fast-breaking news,” she said. “I will do what needs to be done.”
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was a key supporter of the push to legalize last year. He had given the House Judiciary Committee a deadline extension to get the bill out last week.
If it goes back to committee, he said, “it’s probably dead for this year.”
“But you never say never in this body,” he said. “There’s always an opportunity” to attach the language to other legislation that advances.