House delays marijuana vote

MONTPELIER — The House Democratic leadership backed away from a vote on legalizing marijuana Monday night as a more modest compromise plan was being drafted for consideration.

House Speaker Shap Smith and other leaders worked over the weekend and throughout Monday to craft a proposal that could get through the House. The Senate, which passed a bill earlier this year to create a legal, regulated retail marijuana market, attached its plan to a House bill that was expected to be considered by the House Monday.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has been calling publicly for the House to vote on the Senate bill, but the House has not been willing to act. Smith has been saying for weeks that his chamber did not have the votes to pass any legalization bill, but relented to a floor vote as he faced withering criticism for holding up the bill.

A proposal to amend the bill sent over by the Senate began to take shape over the weekend as House leaders sought to move the issue forward in a way that would appease all sides. House leaders queried rank-and-file members as well as senators and the Shumlin administration as they crafted the plan.

Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, is looking to sponsor an amendment that will replace the Senate plan with an incremental step forward. He said the amendment will look to decriminalize the possession and cultivation of two marijuana plants. It would also create a commission to study the legalization issue and call for more education about the use of marijuana.

But Democratic leaders decided around 8:30 p.m. Monday night to postpone action until Tuesday. Rep. Kate Webb of Shelburne, the assistant majority leader, said she had not yet counted a majority of the House backing the amendment.

“Do I have 76? No, I don’t,” she said. “It’s a safe characterization to say that there are still people that need to see the specific language that haven’t responded yet.”

Smith framed the delay as a chance to give House members more time to understand the proposal.

“It was clear that we wouldn’t get an amendment in front of the House members until later tonight and I thought that was not fair to the House members,” he said. “People are working hard to see if there’s some common ground.”

The House must pass a bill by Tuesday at the latest if the issue is going to be addressed this year to avoid the need for a rules suspension. With the Legislature expected to adjourn the biennium by Saturday, only a handful of days remain on the calendar. A vote on a rules suspension to advance legislation after Tuesday bypass the normal legislative process would not garner enough votes, according to House leaders.

The House is expected to reconvene Tuesday morning and take up the amendment sponsored by Conquest and others.

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