Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), Majority Leader Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) confer on the Senate floor Tuesday.
With time running out in the legislative session, supporters of marijuana legalization launched a sneak attack Wednesday from the Vermont Senate in hopes of forcing a reluctant House to weigh in on the matter.
By a 16 to 12 vote, the Senate moved to send its languishing legalization bill back over to the House, where it has stalled in committee for weeks.
“I thought there ought to be at least an opportunity for House members to express their support or opposition,” said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sears moved to attach the contents of a previously passed Senate bill to an unrelated House bill, H.858, which makes miscellaneous changes to the criminal code.
“I’m not surprised,” Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) said of the move, adding that it would not necessarily force the full House to vote on legalization.
Smith described the number of House members who would support legalization as “not many” and said that if it came to the House floor attached to another bill, “It will lose and lose badly.”
The speaker said he does not consider absolutely necessary the bill to which Sears attached the legalization provision.
House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) said she would like to defer the debate to the coming campaign season. “I would really like to find a way we can push this conversation into the election cycle,” she said.
Smith suggested that putting a non-binding referendum on the November ballot could help gauge public interest.
The Senate-passed bill would allow sale and possession of marijuana starting in 2018. A limited number of stores would be granted state permits to sell up to half an ounce of marijuana, with the state collecting a 25 percent sales tax.
The House has been unwilling to go along.
Nearly three weeks ago, the House Judiciary Committee stripped away the legalization provision and narrowly voted to establish a commission to study the idea. The House Ways and Means Committee voted the next week to legalize possession and allow home-growing but not the sale of marijuana. That bill now sits dormant in the House Appropriations Committee, where Smith said he expects no vote to be taken, due to lack of support.
The speaker said he would like to see the state prepare for the possibility of legalization in neighboring Massachusetts and Canada, but he said he doesn’t expect legalization in Vermont.
Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor), who opposes legalization, said he was “disappointed” in the effort to seek a new path for the Senate bill.
“It’s just a blatant push to move toward allowing corporations and big business to come in and make a lot of money,” Campbell said.
Sears said he may try to attach elements of the legalization measure to other bills.
“I don’t think this is the last we’ll see,” Campbell said. As Sears walked by, he told his fellow senator, “Good try.”