A bill to legalize the sale of cannabis in Vermont appears to be dead for the year. Four state representatives told Seven Days Monday night that the bill, S.54, has run out of time to pass the House in the current session, which is scheduled to adjourn at the end of the week.
"This was never on our must-pass list for this year," said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), who confirmed the bill's demise. "I've always said that careful exploration of policy takes precedence."
Though the personal use and cultivation of marijuana has been legal in Vermont since last July, retail sales remain prohibited. In March, the Senate passed S.54, which would implement a tax-and-regulate system by April 2021. The bill was marooned in the House Government Operations Committee for weeks and only recently moved to the House Ways and Means Committee.
"My own take: We got the bill about a week ago," said Rep. Scott Beck (R-St. Johnsbury), a member of Ways and Means and a supporter of S.54. "There are so many layers in the bill. I felt that it required a lot of time."
Government Operations Committee chair Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), whose committee approved the bill last week on a 10-1 vote, noted Monday that S.54 "would have had to get out of [Ways and Means] today" to have a chance at final passage. "We had a conversation about a number of questions they had," Copeland Hanzas continued. "None seemed insurmountable. If we had another week, they could have been worked out."
Rep. Sam Young (D-Glover), a member of Ways and Means, said he would have preferred to postpone adjournment if necessary to get the bill across the finish line. "If we want to completely abandon our agenda, sure, we can adjourn on Friday," he said.
Since this is the first year of a two-year legislative session, the House can pick up any bill in 2020 where it was left off this year. "We'll be able to move quickly" next year, Speaker Johnson said.
She cited two concerns that the Ways and Means Committee could not overcome in the brief time available: First, the version of the bill approved by the Government Operations Committee called for spending on education, prevention and regulation before the state would have begun collecting revenue. And second, the fee structure was not set in the bill.
According to Johnson, seven House committees would have had to weigh in on the bill before it reached the House floor. Lawmakers also had to consider Gov. Phil Scott's demands. He wanted guaranteed money for anti-drug education and prevention, a system that would make communities opt in to retail sales, and some form of roadside testing for cannabis.
There were certainly numerous obstacles. But until Monday, House leadership had been saying that final passage this year was still possible. That view seems to have been retroactively amended.
A delay until next year "makes no sense from a policy perspective," said Dave Silberman, a Middlebury attorney and advocate of a tax-and-regulate system. "All of Gov. Scott's concerns had been addressed in a good faith way. And here we are at the goal line, and it's gone."