Vermont lawmakers once again came close — but once again failed — to pass legislation to legalize marijuana Wednesday during a one-day special veto session.
The legal weed bill passed the Senate easily, as it has the past two years. But the bill hit a wall in the House, where an effort to suspend rules to bring the bill to the floor fell far short.
“It is our best chance to pass legalization of small amounts of marijuana,” Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) told fellow senators before their vote early Wednesday evening.
The measure, which would have legalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana starting in July 2018, passed in the Senate on a voice vote, with only a few dissenters. The bill would also have created a commission to study taxed and regulated sale of marijuana.
Wednesday’s vote came after Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a similar bill last month. But the Republican governor reached an agreement with the Democrat-controlled legislature Wednesday on a slightly revised version.
Administration Secretary Susanne Young said after the Senate vote that the governor would sign the bill if it reached him. But the governor made no effort to encourage House Republicans to help make that happen.
“I had never made a commitment to push the House and what they were going to do,” Scott said Wednesday night after the House voted. “I said it was up to them.”
Nonetheless, Scott argued that he was serious about trying to enact a legalization bill. Otherwise, he said, “we wouldn’t have worked so hard to come to an agreement with the House and Senate.”
After the Senate’s vote, the bill went to the House, where rules required that it wait a day before coming to a vote. Members can vote to suspend rules to advance a bill more quickly, but that takes three-quarters of the chamber.
House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) called for a rules suspension to take up the bill Wednesday evening. But she fell far short of the 107 votes she needed after a 78-63 roll call vote.
The vote was largely along party lines, but not entirely. Fourteen of the chamber’s 83 Democrats voted against rules suspension while five of the 53 Republicans voted to suspend rules.
House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton), who opposes legalization, said Scott never pressed him to suspend House rules. “He was clear that we had to do what we had to do,” Turner said.
Turner said Wednesday afternoon that House Republicans would meet later in the day to debate whether to suspend rules, but that meeting never happened. He later said that holding another caucus meeting would have pushed the session late into the night and wasn’t worthwhile.
Sears, a marijuana legalization supporter who has watched legislation fail in the House the last two years, said making another try was still worthwhile. The same bill will await lawmakers when they return to Montpelier in January, when suspending the rules won’t be an issue.
“We’ll have something of an agreement with the administration,” he said.
Sears joined with House Judiciary Committee chair Maxine Grad (D-Moretown) to negotiate changes to the vetoed bill with Scott’s staff. At Scott’s request, the new measure would have made it a misdemeanor crime for minors who provide marijuana to other, younger minors. Consuming marijuana with a minor in a car would be a crime as well. The bill also broadened the commission to include more of Scott’s appointees.
The bill’s failure Wednesday means the commission meant to study taxing and regulating marijuana will be delayed from starting its work, Sears noted. An alternative would be for the governor to enact the commission by executive order.
Scott said Wednesday night that he is “contemplating some sort of commission.” If he does create one, it likely would focus first on highway safety issues and youth drug prevention before examining how Vermont might tax and regulate marijuana, he said.