Late Tuesday evening, the House approved a bill that would legalize possession of marijuana for adults.
The measure, H.170, would remove all penalties for adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. It would also allow adults to grow up to two mature and four immature marijuana plants per household.
The legislation would not, however, create a regulatory structure for pot sales.
The House approved the bill 74 to 68. It will come up for final approval Wednesday.
While the vote represents a significant victory for advocates of marijuana legalization, the finish line is a long way off.
The timing — just five days before lawmakers are expected to break for the year — makes passage in the Senate highly unlikely this year. H.170 has not yet been through the Senate, though the upper chamber did send a separate bill to the House last month that would set up a regulatory and tax system for retail sales of marijuana.
If the bill lands on Gov. Phil Scott’s desk, there is no guarantee he will sign it. Scott is not staunchly opposed to marijuana legalization, but he has said the timing isn’t right.
Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, explained the bill on the House floor Tuesday evening. He argued that penalizing marijuana users has not been effective.
“It’s time to admit that we lack a rational justification for continuing this prohibition,” he said.
A law passed in 2013 removed criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, which previously was a misdemeanor offense. Since then, possession of small amounts of pot has been subject to a civil penalty. Fines start at $200 for possession of under an ounce.
Floor debate began after a dinner break with nearly half an hour of confused discussion about whether the bill should be sent to the Transportation Committee for further review, amid arguments that H.170 would have impacts on road safety. The House twice defeated Republican-led efforts to send the bill to committee, which would have delayed action.
The House adopted an amendment offered by Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, that would extend a prohibition on open alcohol containers in vehicles to marijuana.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, offered an amendment that would have scrapped legalization of marijuana possession and changed penalties for possessing a marijuana plant from a criminal charge to a civil offense.
Donahue opposed removing all penalties for possession.
“I think the civil penalty is actually really important,” she said.
A civil fine makes a statement about “our social message,” Donahue said. “We’re not endorsing this, we’re not saying this is all fine and good, we’re not sanctioning it,” she said.
Conquest said the civil penalties under the decriminalization law are “not nothing for a lot of people.”
Donahue’s amendment was defeated.
Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, targeted youth use of marijuana and road safety in two amendments. One would delay legalization until implementation of a plan to beef up a program to educate youth about the risks of using pot.
Others argued the state already has a robust education and prevention system in place.
“I’m afraid I don’t see what we’re going to gain from trying to revamp a program that works,” Rep. Susan Buckholz, D-White River Junction, said.
The amendment was defeated with 61 in favor and 78 opposed.
Another amendment offered by Browning would have delayed legalization until a roadside test similar to those used for detecting alcohol impairment is in place, or until the number of law enforcement officers trained to detect drug impairment is substantially increased.
“Why not just be careful?” Browning said.
Conquest said drug-impaired driving is an issue already and drug recognition experts are an effective way to approach the issue.
“That doesn’t seem very likely to change a whole lot if we legalize marijuana in this fashion,” Conquest said.
Browning’s amendment was defeated with 77 opposed and 64 in favor.
Rep. Tom Burditt, R-West Rutland, a sponsor of the bill, made an impassioned plea for support.
He argued changing the policy could lead to savings in Vermont’s criminal justice system and broader justice reform.
Others raised concerns that the bill goes too far. Burditt’s colleague from Rutland, Rep. Peter Fagan, disputed the characterization of the amounts that would be legalized as “small.”
“We’re talking about people in the state of Vermont getting and staying high,” he said.
The House also defeated an amendment offered by Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, D-Burlington, that would create a system to tax and regulate marijuana sales.
O’Sullivan drew language from the amendment the Senate passed last month, which she characterized as a “well-thought-out bill.” The proposal would license operations to grow and sell marijuana on many different scales and tax sales.
“This is what education, prevention, legalization and regulation looks like,” he said.
The proposal was not backed by the House Judiciary Committee, Conquest said, because the measure has not been vetted by the relevant committees.
O’Sullivan’s amendment failed, with 42 in favor, 99 opposed.
The debate ended in a roll call vote shortly after 11:30 p.m. The bill will come up for final approval in the House Wednesday.