“We know that prohibition has not worked,” Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) said. “Let’s make it safer, less accessible to kids.”
The vote came in response to an amendment White made to another criminal justice bill. The Senate had been awaiting action from the House on legalization, but that chamber had yet to vote as the legislative session nears its early-May adjournment.
Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland) briefly succeeded in derailing White’s amendment when she questioned whether it was sufficiently related — or germane — to the underlying bill. It wasn’t, ruled Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman.
But Senate rules allow the chamber to make a non-germane amendment germane, if they can muster a three-fourths’ majority. They did, by a 23-7 vote — exactly enough to meet the threshold.*
White’s amendment is similar to legislation the Senate passed last year which went on to fail in the House. It would legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and older and allow them to grow up to two plants and four seedlings as of January 2, 2019. Licenses would be available for commercial cultivators, retailers and lab testing of varying sizes.
Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) argued against legalization. “Here we are passing another drug so we can spend more money for treatment, for care of young people when they get caught up on drugs,” he said.
He complained that the Senate was wasting its time, knowing the House wouldn’t go along with the bill.
Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) argued that the Senate was right to act, regardless of the House’s plans. He cited a RAND Corporation report from 2015 that estimated 80,000 Vermonters already use marijuana.
“If you had any other drug that 80,000 were using you’d certainly look at whether they should all be criminals,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of law-breakers.”
Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), who voted against the amendment, said he did not want to legalize marijuana as long as there is no roadside test for impaired drivers. “Let’s make sure we have a system in place,” he said.
Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) argued that Vermont has a serious drug problem, but “that drug problem is not marijuana.”
“Marijuana is not entirely benign,” McCormack said. “It does make friends of mine who are otherwise interesting, annoying. It’s a vice.”
But, he argued, “We don't treat people like criminals for spending too much time on video games.”
Sears said he is still likely to introduce another amendment next week to establish a study committee to look at how Vermont should tax and regulate marijuana. But he said House Judiciary Committee chair Maxine Grad (D-Moretown) has made it clear to him that she doesn’t support the study.
Both Sears’ and White’s amendments could become points of negotiations with the House at the end of the legislative session. The House, which has never embraced full legalization, is having trouble even with a watered-down approach: A bill to legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is stalled in committee.
Gov. Phil Scott has also said that he would not support legalization unless new roadside testing was available for marijuana.
*Correction, April 21, 2017: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the number of votes needed to reach the necessary threshold.