Vermont House Speaker Doubts Legal Marijuana Will Happen in 2016

There was some hope earlier this month that the Vermont House of Representatives would find a way to get over itself long enough to ensure the passage of legislation aimed at legalizing marijuana in 2016, but so far, the chamber has done nothing but negotiate mass confusion into the concept of ending statewide prohibition—potentially cutting the throat of a bill originally intended to create a taxed and regulated pot market similar to what is currently underway in Colorado and Washington.

House Speaker Shap Smith recently told reporters that with the legislative session set to expire at the end of next week, not to mention the inability of the House to come to some agreement on a functional proposal, it is not likely that Vermont will legalize a recreational pot market this year. He said there simply are not enough votes in either chamber for Governor Peter Shumlin to expect a bill to land on his desk anytime in the near future.

"We have had it pass through the judiciary and the Ways and Means Committee," Smith said. "It's not clear whether either version that came through one of those committees has the votes on the house floor. It also has an uphill climb on the appropriations committee, so if I was a betting person I would not bet on anything coming through."

At the beginning of the year, Governor Shumlin pleaded with lawmakers to get serious about pushing through “the right bill” to bring down prohibition in the Green Mountain State. Pointing out that 80,000 Vermont residents used marijuana in 2015, Shumlin suggested that the time had come for the state to establish a taxed and regulated system in an effort to castrate the black market and begin generating millions of dollars in tax revenue from retail pot sales. 

When lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 241, it appeared Vermont was on the verge of not only becoming the first state in the nation to legalize weed through the state legislature, but would also institute of one of the most liberal marijuana laws in the entire country. In its original form, the proposal would have legalized the cultivation, possession and sale of marijuana for adults 21 and over. It also came with a provision that would have allowed a number of cannabis lounges to open across the state. However, the cultivation and public consumption aspect of the bill were eventually snuffed out before it was shipped over to the House of Representatives for consideration. 

In the House is where Vermont’s dream of legal weed began to abandon all hope. A key committee under the influence of Representative Maxine Grad essentially shredded the Senate version, taking it back to the drawing board to draft a proposal more suitable for Vermont—eliminating every component that had to do with legalization, and instead, proposing the decriminalization of up to two cannabis plants.

Shortly thereafter, the situation took a turn for the positive. The House Ways and Means Committee emerged from the shadows to pass a separate proposal aimed at legalizing marijuana without retail sales. Their version suggested that Vermont residents should be allowed to possess up to an ounce of weed without incurring the fines prescribed under the decriminalization law, while also giving them the freedom to grow up to two plants without legal repercussion.

It was at this point that cannabis advocates seemed pleased with the direction Vermont’s recreational marijuana bill was heading.

“Many Vermonters have been very vocal in support of allowing limited home cultivation, and it appears their voices did not fall on deaf ears,” said Matt Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “This amendment breathes new life into S.241. The House is engaged in a very deliberative process, and we’re hopeful it will do the right thing and end marijuana prohibition in Vermont.” 

Unfortunately, while some advocates, like Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority, believe Vermont still has a fighting chance at legalizing marijuana this year in a way that allows for both home cultivation and retail sales, that appears unlikely. If the House does not reach an agreement on a proposal before the session adjourns on May 7, the issue may end up taking a backseat until 2017.

(Photo Courtesy of The Joint Blog)

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