House defeats efforts to legalize, further decriminalize pot

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House on Tuesday soundly rejected a Senate proposal to legalize marijuana and create a regulated retail market for the drug, and even fell short of decriminalizing the possession and cultivation of two marijuana plants.

Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, speaks on the House floor during a debate about marijuana legalization. (Times Argus/Stefan Hard)

Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, speaks on the House floor during a debate about marijuana legalization. (Times Argus/Stefan Hard)

The House did manage to salvage a commission that will study the legalization of marijuana and report its findings back to the Legislature, likely setting up another push at legalization next year after the November election.

The House first voted 121 to 28 Tuesday against the Senate’s proposal, which was strongly backed by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. The Senate passed the bill on a 17 to 12 vote.

Rep. Chris Pearson, a Progressive from Burlington, was among the slim minority of House members who supported the Senate’s language. He repeatedly questioned why Vermonters are free to drink alcohol but not legally smoke or possess marijuana.

“Our constituents want to know, why do we sit and enjoy delicious Vermont beer and frown on cannabis use?” Pearson said. “These are not deadbeats. These are professionals, with advanced degrees who earn nice salaries.”

Pearson’s point was reinforced when lawmakers took an afternoon break for a reception honoring the retirement of a longtime legislative staff person where many of them sipped on champagne.

After dispatching with the Senate’s proposal, the Democratic-led House then rejected an amendment billed by Democratic House leaders as a compromise to decriminalize the possession and cultivation of up to two marijuana plants on a 70 to 77 vote. Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Newbury, proposed the amendment to decriminalize the possession and cultivation of two marijuana plants, create a commission to study the issue of legalization and boost education programs about the use of marijuana.

Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, speaks on the House floor during debate over marijuana legalization. (Times Argus/Stefan Hard)

Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, speaks on the House floor during debate over marijuana legalization. (Times Argus/Stefan Hard)

Conquest said the state decriminalized the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana in 2013 but “never addressed how they might get that marijuana.” Vermonters must “enter a criminal realm” and “get it from someone who is committing a crime,” Conquest said.

Rep. Sam Young, D-Glover, urged the House to support the decriminalization proposal because the country’s policy of prohibiting marijuana has only made “criminals out of good neighbors.”

“What good has ever come from the criminalization of the drug?” Young asked his colleagues. “Should we double down? Should we spend another $1.3 trillion? This war has failed us. It has torn apart families and communities and I feel we should have some measure of compassion for those 60,000 to 80,000 Vermonters that use marijuana.”

Conquests proposal was split into several parts and the House approved the commission.

The votes Tuesday were a major setback for advocates and supporters of legalization, and for Shumlin, who had been calling for weeks on the House to take up the Senate proposal.

Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith had been warning since February that his chamber did not have the votes to pass legalization. And after the compromise language was developed in recent days, Smith warned again that it was not sure to pass.

“Last week it was clear to me that despite my view that the policy is broken it was not clear that we had a majority of legislators who felt that was true. I was calling it like I saw it. I told the administration, I told the Senate, that I thought it was a bad idea that we take a vote on this bill. They pushed very hard and they decided to put a vote on the floor,” Smith said.

Law enforcement officers listen to debate in the House about marijuana legalization. (Times Argus/Stefan Hard)

Law enforcement officers listen to debate in the House about marijuana legalization. (Times Argus/Stefan Hard)

Shumlin did push for a vote and the administration said it was working to secure the votes. The governor issued a statement Tuesday evening expressing his disappointment with the House.

“The War on Drugs policy of marijuana prohibition has failed. I want to thank those House members who recognize that and worked to move this issue forward. It is incredibly disappointing, however, that a majority of the House has shown a remarkable disregard for the sentiment of most Vermonters who understand that we must pursue a smarter policy when it comes to marijuana in this state,” he said.

Smith said he, too, was “disappointed that we can’t move further but it is the reality of where people are right now.” He said he would have killed the bill “in March, not May,” if he was not interested in advancing the issue.

“The reality is that we were trying to move the issue forward in the House and we were struggling every step of the way, and I think that was demonstrated by the real difficulty that the Judiciary Committee had in reaching any consensus on any bill,” he said. “It wasn’t for lack of trying. We pushed it as hard as we could.”

The House first received the Senate proposal in late February, but the House never embraced it. While the Senate took up the issue last fall, holding hearings at the State House and several public hearings around the state, the House did not embrace the issue. House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, was not interested in taking on the issue and even resisted taking up the issue after the Senate passed S.241, according to several House members.

The House Judiciary Committee eventually voted to strike it all and replaced it with a commission to study the issue. The House Ways and Means Committee then further amended the bill to legalize the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana and the possession and cultivation of up to two marijuana plants. But that proposal could not clear the House Appropriations Committee.

That’s when Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, attached the Senate’s legalization bill to a House-passed bill dealing with criminal procedures.

House speaker Shap Smith confers with House members during debate on marijuana legalization. (Times Argus/Stefan Hard)

House speaker Shap Smith confers with House members during debate on marijuana legalization. (Times Argus/Stefan Hard)

House Republicans attempted to derail Conquest’s amendment several times Tuesday, including proposing a non-binding referendum on the August primary ballot that would replace it. The House rejected that proposal, however, with many members saying such a referendum would “abdicate” their responsibility as lawmakers.

The commission approved by the House Tuesday will now go back to the Senate for its approval. With lawmakers looking to adjourn the legislative biennium on Saturday, it is unlikely that any further changes can be made. That would require suspending the rules to advance the legislative process and House leaders say they will not be able to secure enough votes for that.

3 thoughts on “House defeats efforts to legalize, further decriminalize pot

  1. I’m not as familiar with Vermont politics, but here’s what’s shaking out in NH, and I’m assuming it’s probably the same story.

    From the recent NHPR article “N.H. Gov. Hassan Unlikely To Back Decriminalizing Small Amount Of Pot”:
    “Unquestionably, you have the factor that the chiefs associations, the state police association, all these groups are very strong supporters of this governor and the prior governor and have come out emphatically in opposition.”

    The cops know that, since there’s no real crime in NH, half their jobs will disappear if the Drug War ends, so they’re fighting tooth and nail to keep it going, refusing to surrender even an inch. Cops tear families apart, ruin lives, and put people into rape cages just to make a buck.

    From the ABC News article “Prison Rape Widely Ignored by Authorities”:
    “More than 200,000 men are raped behind bars each year.”

    I want to propose a thought experiment: Suppose that a local gang such as the Bloods or Crips were kidnapping people in your neighborhood and locking them in cages to be raped. If there were no legitimate authorities you could turn to, would you be justified in stopping them yourselves in order to stop your friends and family from being caged and/or raped? Would you be justified in shooting them, or perhaps castrating them to send a message?

    The American Founding Fathers used torture in a widespread, systematic manner to discourage the authorities from carrying out their tyranny: They tarred and feathered agents of the state until their skin fell off. They whipped and dragged them through the streets. And such vicious acts of rebellion were even institutionalized in the New Hampshire Bill of Rights, Article 10, which states:

    “Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought, to reform the old, or establish a new government. The doctrine of non-resistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.”

    As Frederic Bastiat said in the seminal work of human liberty “The Law”:
    “The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense…Neither religion nor morality can stop it. When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labor.”

  2. I don’t believe in Hell, but I wish there was one, so these corrupt legislators could burn in it. The people should be out with pitchforks and torches. Unfortunately, stoners are notoriously peaceful, which is why the “War on Drugs” has not been a war so much as a genocide of an unresistant culture. This shows the failures of pacifism when you are the victims of a government war.

  3. Law enforcement should not be allowed to show up in uniform unless they are working for the Capitol Police. This is what intimidating factors of prohibition people do. It is disgusting that local chief of Police allow off duty officers to dress up for a public legislative session. This shows that we live in a police state be it local, federal or else it is not right. It would be unjust if people showed up with mask on such as the guy faux mask in a public place they be asked to remove it or be treated with harsh criminal codes for disorderly conduct. Here we have peace officer off duty wearing uniforms to intimidating factors over the will of the people who vote. This is not democracy it is dictatorship and neo fascism from big government. Unfair BS.

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