MONTPELIER — The Vermont House concurred Wednesday with a Senate-passed bill to legalize marijuana, becoming the first Legislature in the country to send a recreational marijuana legalization bill to a governor to become law.
The bill, S.22, was passed by the House on a 79-66 vote after appearing to be dead several times since the legislative session began in January. It followed an untraditional path through the Legislature to make it to Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who said Wednesday he remains unsure if he will veto it.
While other states have already legalized marijuana, those states were compelled to act by voter-approved referendums. The Vermont General Assembly is the first legislative body in the country to have two chambers approve legalization for recreational marijuana use.
Under the legislation, people 21 and older will be allowed to legally possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana beginning July 1, 2018. They will also be allowed to have two mature marijuana plants and four immature plants. Those measures are the basis of another bill, H.170, the House passed last week on a 75-71 vote — after sitting on the bill for weeks while Democratic leaders worked to shore up the vote count.
The Senate had been pushing for a broader legalization measure. The Senate passed its own bill that would create a tax-and-regulate retail market for marijuana in Vermont. But the House could not muster the votes to pass it.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, crafted a compromise bill by adding a commission to the House’s preferred legalization plan to study how to create a regulated retail market in Vermont. That nine-member commission will report back to lawmakers later this year with suggested legislation for such a market.
That compromise plan was enough to pass the House Wednesday after an abbreviated debate.
Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, urged his colleagues to reject legalization now. He said surveys conducted by the Vermont Department of Health show youth marijuana use on the decline. He said legalization could reverse that progress.
“I see nothing in this bill that gives me any confidence that that trend might continue and I’m scared that it might reverse,” he said. “I don’t think we should put that in jeopardy at this point in time.”
Rep. Susan Buckholz, D-Hartford, spoke in favor of the bill.
“I continue to be astounded at how we continue to act like pot ain’t here,” she said. “I would contend that it’s irresponsible not to start getting a handle on this issue, to not start attacking the black market.”
Rep. David Yacovone, D-Morristown, a former commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, made the most passionate remarks in favor of legalization. He said “the eras of Richard Nixon and Nancy Reagan have come and gone” and mass incarceration and “Just say no” has failed.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always gotten. I do not want what we’ve always gotten. I do not want business as usual. I do not want complacency when it comes to the safety of Vermonters,” he said. “I want a regulated market … with the bad actors who sell this today replaced with responsible, regulated, businesses who check IDs.”
The House vote followed an earlier vote Wednesday morning in the House Judiciary Committee. The panel voted 8-3 to recommend the full House agree with the Senate’s compromise. The committee vote came after two leaders signaled their support.
“I don’t think I’ve ever given a bill so much thought,” Republican Rep. Thomas Burditt said. “In my mind, it’s the decriminalization that is the important part.”
Burditt, of West Rutland, said he was initially opposed to the compromise but changed his mind after thinking it over for a few days because it will help Vermonters “reduce negative contacts with police.”
Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, said she was initially troubled last week that the Senate language delayed legalization by a year. By, Wednesday, however, she saw it differently, saying road safety issues and youth prevention efforts would have more time to be addressed.
“I think having that extra year … does give many stakeholders opportunities to work on those things,” she said.
While advocates and legalization proponents were hailing passage of S.22, one major hurdle remains — the governor. Scott reiterated his issues with legalization to reporters Wednesday.
“I’ve spoken a lot about this. It’s no secret that I don’t believe this is a priority for Vermont. I think what we should be doing is trying to find ways to protect those on our highways,” Scott said.
While he promised to review the bill as passed, Scott made it clear that it falls short of his own expectations in terms of highway safety.
“I’ll take a look at the bill, but I’ve been pretty clear that I’d like to see some improvements to the bill to make sure that we have a structure in place that provides safety to Vermonters,” he said. “I don’t see anything that really focuses on the highway impairment issue.”
Scott’s office is likely to face an onslaught of calls and messages as advocates encourage the public to speak out in favor of legalization. Public polls in Vermont in recent years have consistently shown that a majority of Vermonters support legalization.