Pot — or Not? Vermont's Looming Fight Over Marijuana Legalization | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Pot — or Not? Vermont's Looming Fight Over Marijuana Legalization


Published October 28, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Debby Haskins paced back and forth at the front of a sparsely filled hotel ballroom Monday in Montpelier, inveighing against the dangers of marijuana.

"We're talking about commercializing and legalizing another drug that is psychologically and physically addictive, and the question is: Why?" the semi-retired substance abuse counselor asked her audience of two dozen.

As executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana-Vermont, Haskins was hoping to convince her members that they could keep the state from becoming the fourth in the country to legalize pot — and the first to do so by legislative action.

"If I hear one more time that this is 'inevitable'—" she said, cutting herself off mid-sentence. "I'm angry about that ... Nothing is inevitable until it's done, and as old Yogi Berra said, 'It ain't done 'til it's done.'"

Haskins may have a point.

Though public opinion polls have consistently shown that Vermonters support legalizing pot — and several top politicians have recently come around to the idea — legalization faces a long road in the legislature next year. Even outspoken supporters, such as Marijuana Policy Project lobbyist Matt Simon, are careful to temper expectations.

"I think the votes are there," he says. "It's just a question of whether the details can fall into place to people's satisfaction."

Among the questions lawmakers must consider: Who would be permitted to buy, sell and grow pot? What quantities would be permissible? How would the industry be regulated? How would it be taxed? Where would the revenue go? Could the state comply with federal guidelines? Would edibles be allowed?

"The more people get into this, they realize it's not a simple yes or no question," Simon says. "The devil's always in the details."

Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) has spent much of the past year pondering those details. After the drive toward legalization stalled out last winter, she tasked her Senate Committee on Government Operations with taking testimony on the subject every Friday for the rest of the legislative session.

Next Tuesday, her committee plans to hold a Statehouse hearing to begin finalizing legislation she hopes to introduce in January, on the first day of the session.

"We think it's going to be easier to have the 'should we or shouldn't we' conversation if we have a framework for how," says White, who strongly supports legalization.

Legislative leaders expect the debate to begin in the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose powerful chair, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), has long opposed efforts to dilute Vermont's marijuana laws. Last year, he refused to consider the matter. This year, he's open to it.

"I'm committed that if it gets three votes in my committee and I end up voting no, it'll get out of the committee," he says. "I'm not going to play any parliamentary tricks with it or hold it up or do anything."

Sears says he strongly opposes the sale of edibles and wants any revenue raised to go to prevention and education. But he hints that even he could be convinced to vote "yea," which would grease the skids for Senate passage.

"Prohibition of alcohol didn't work," he says. "We may be at that point where, quite frankly, prohibition [of marijuana] isn't working. And maybe it's time to legalize."

Either way, at least three of his five committee members favor legalization: White, Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), who serves as minority leader of the Senate Republicans.

In an illustration of just how much pot politics have shifted in Vermont, Benning sounds something like a hippie when he describes his desire to legalize pot "the Vermont way."

"Keep it small. Keep it local," the Caledonia Republican says. "I don't want to see a Budweiser coming in. I want to see a Heady Topper."

Yeah, brahhh.

Complicating matters in the Senate is the fate of Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin). Since he was arrested outside the Statehouse last May on sexual assault charges, the Franklin County Republican has refused to resign his seat, despite tri-partisan calls for his departure.

If he remains in office come January, many of his colleagues have said they would attempt to expel him, an unprecedented process that could tie up Judiciary — or the whole damn Senate — for weeks.

Several legalization proponents worry that such an interruption would imperil their bill's chances, because House leaders have made clear that the Senate must hand it over by crossover — the 16-week session's halftime — so they have time to consider it.

"It's not a two-week issue," says House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown). "It's going to take longer than that. So I think people need to be cognizant of that and understand that Vermonters are going to expect us to do this right, not do it fast."

Like Sears, Smith is a longtime marijuana skeptic. And, like Sears, he held up decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana until two years ago. But unlike Sears, Smith is running for governor in a hotly contested Democratic primary.

Though he told Seven Days last January that he was "not a big fan" of legalization, Smith announced his tentative support for it in August, not long after he joined the gubernatorial race.

"I think the reality is, there will be legalization of marijuana in the coming years, and I support it if it's done the right way," the speaker now says. "That being: addressing issues around driving under the influence and making sure that it's not going to be available for young Vermonters."

Haskins, the SAM-VT leader, says she's "angry" at Smith for changing his tune.

"This should be about what's best for all of Vermont, not whether I want to be the next governor," she says.

The speaker denies that his political ambitions played any role in his switcheroo, though he concedes "there's been an evolution" in his thinking.

Smith's position — conditional support, tempered by concerns about road safety and youth use — is shared by both of his Democratic rivals, former senator Matt Dunne and former transportation secretary Sue Minter.

Their Republican opponents aren't quite so hot on pot. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott says he's not outright opposed to legalization but doesn't see any need to rush it. Retired Wall Street banker Bruce Lisman says he's "against legalizing marijuana right now" because he'd rather focus on fighting opiate abuse.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is what role the incumbent governor will play.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, who plans to retire after the next legislative session, has long favored relaxing Vermont's marijuana laws. He's participated in Marijuana Policy Project fundraisers and has taken at least $17,000 in campaign contributions from the group's political action committee.

But Shumlin has been mysteriously hesitant to lead the charge.

"As you know, the governor is supportive of legalizing marijuana in Vermont," spokesman Scott Coriell says. "The question for him is not if but when."

If the governor puts the weight of his administration behind legalization, he could almost certainly make it happen. But, Shumlin being Shumlin, he's just as likely to take the approach he did two sessions ago with the mandatory labeling of genetically modified food: Keep quiet until he knows it's going to pass or fail — and then take credit for the end result.

You know, getting tough things done.

Sexist Sanders?

In Hillary Clinton's world, it's apparently never too early to accuse your opponent of sexism.

At the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner Saturday in Des Moines, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) drew headlines for "attacking" Clinton as a flip-flopper, saying — not so subtly — that he would "govern based on principle, not poll numbers."

But while Sanders' critique focused on Clinton's policy record — her support for the Iraq War, the Defense of Marriage Act and free trade agreements — the former secretary of state made it personal.

Reprising a line she'd debuted a day earlier, Clinton criticized Sanders for saying at the Las Vegas Democratic debate that "all the shouting in the world" would not end gun violence.

"I haven't been shouting, but sometimes when a woman speaks out, some people think it's shouting," Clinton said at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner.

Nice try, Hillary. In fact, Sanders has been employing that line for months, well before she began hitting him from the left on his mixed gun record. Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union" way back in July, Sanders said, "We have been yelling and screaming at each other about guns for decades with very little success." He's been repeating the point ever since.

There's plenty to criticize about Sanders' wobbly gun record and his tortured explanations of it, not to mention the absurdity of the loudest shouter in the room coming out against yelling and screaming. But inferring that it amounts to sexism?

Let's not forget that Sanders rarely makes it through a rally without calling for paid family leave, abortion rights and equal pay for women. And while his political apparatus used to be a bit of a boys' club, he's actually hired more women than men in the past 15 years.

According to LegiStorm, a D.C.-based company that tracks congressional employment data, Sanders' House, Senate and committee offices have been staffed by 118 men and 124 women since 2000, the first year for which LegiStorm has complete data. Though men currently outnumber women 32 to 26, two of Sanders' top employees — chief of staff Michaeleen Crowell and legislative director Caryn Compton — are women.

Asked about Clinton's "shouting" remark Sunday on "State of the Union," Sanders was wise enough to laugh it off, telling moderator Jake Tapper that it's "just not the case" that he's sexist. But in an interview with Politico the next day, his senior strategist, Tad Devine, took Clinton's bait and seemed to threaten retribution if she kept it up.

"If they're going to have a campaign that attacks Bernie on gun safety and implies he engages in sexism, that's unacceptable," Devine said. "We're going to have to talk about other things if they do that. If they're going to engage in this kind of attack, they need to understand we're not going to stand there and take it."

No doubt that's Clinton's plan: Get under Sanders' skin, goad him into personally attacking her and then play the victim.

We've seen this movie before.


Four years ago, Bruce Lisman founded and funded the "nonpartisan" advocacy group Campaign for Vermont in anticipation of a gubernatorial run. Ahem, I mean, "to advocate for public policy changes by reconnecting middle-class Vermonters to their government."

Now that Lisman is fully ensconced in his campaign — and has turned off the $1.35 million spigot that funded CFV — the organization appears to have fallen on tough times. Earlier this month, policy and operations manager Ben Kinsley decamped to the Lisman campaign. And now executive director Cyrus Patten says he's on his way out the door.

Patten has taken a new job as executive director of Mayday PAC, which raises money for political candidates who back campaign finance reform. Harvard Law School professor and Democratic presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig founded the organization. Three months ago, he handed the reins to Vermont native Zephyr Teachout, who last year ran for governor of New York.

So what's in store for CFV, which Patten says has just $40,000 in the bank? According to board chair Louise McCarren, the organization is on the hunt for a replacement, who can "continue the momentum Cyrus has built with respect to members and partners."

And, no doubt, to hold Lisman accountable if he's elected governor.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Pot — or Not?"