Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington), left, Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor) and Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) confer on the Senate floor Thursday.
The Senate nixed a last-ditch effort Thursday night to have Vermont voters weigh in this coming November on whether they support legalization of marijuana.
With the legislature braced to adjourn for the year on Saturday, that defeat likely means lawmakers will leave without any marijuana legalization — or even a commission to study it.
“Fuck the commission,” a frustrated Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said after his effort to create a public advisory vote failed. “The commission was unnecessary.”
A couple of hours earlier, Sears had been willing to go along with creating a marijuana legalization study commission if lawmakers also agreed to the public advisory vote.
But he came to that option only after the House soundly defeated the Senate’s marijuana legalization bill Tuesday in a 121-28 vote.
“I think the advisory vote is an opportunity to educate the public,” Sears said. “It might give some in the other body information they need to either vote against it or support it.”
A public advisory vote has not been used in Vermont since a 1976 ballot measure asked whether the state should start a lottery. Seven times in the 1800s and early 1900s, the state used the device to seek public input on temperance. The law in Vermont lacks a mechanism for binding referendums like those that Colorado, Washington and Oregon used to legalize marijuana. Sears said it would have been clear the question was non-binding.
Sears had proposed asking on the November ballot: “Should the State of Vermont legalize personal possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana and regulate and tax marijuana for adult use?”
Sears quickly learned the ballot item was controversial.
Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham) made an impassioned plea to fellow Democrats not to use the ballot box to decide social issues. As a gay person with family members who were killed in the Holocaust, she said, “I can’t tell you how terrified I am when it comes to referendums. We don’t have control over what the questions are going to look like in future.”
House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) said his members were also having a hard time with the idea. After House Democrats suggested inserting legislation calling for a public advisory vote in the budget bill, Smith said, “We were having a lot of members coming and telling us, ‘If you put it in the budget, we will not vote for the budget.’”
Sen. Dustin Degree (R-Franklin) had other questions about the use of an advisory vote.
“Are there campaign laws set up to deal with this?” he asked on the Senate floor.
“It’s not a campaign,” responded Senate Government Operations Committee chair Jeanette White (D-Windham).
“In theory, there could be millions and millions and millions of dollars spent,” Degree said.
“I really don’t want to see a million dollars spent,” Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) told Senate Democrats. “I already know how people feel.”
Sears said Thursday night he likely had run out of time to try other options related to marijuana legalization. “You win some, you lose some,” he said.
This post was updated at 9:40 p.m. on May 5, 2016.