Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin made history in January when he called on state legislators to pass a bill that would legalize, regulate and tax recreational marijuana in the Green Mountain State. If passed, the bill would make Vermont the first state to legalize a recreational market through the state legislature as opposed to voter-initiated ballot questions.
That legalization bill - S.241 - was approved by the Senate February 29 and then sent to the House, where it hit a big snag on April 6. The bill didn't have enough support in the House Judiciary Committee to be passed, so legislators decided to gut rather than kill the legislation.
What went wrong?
"The big roadblocks were rank-and-file House members who are hellbent on keeping prohibition and didn't want to talk about it [legalization]," said Matt Simon - New England Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "They held their fingers in their ears."
But they didn't outright kill the bill. Instead, they revised it into legislation that would create a commission to study legalization. That's a far cry from what the original bill would have accomplished, but does this mean legalization in Vermont has gone up in smoke?
"Up in smoke?" laughed Simon. "That's a Cheech and Chong movie isn't it? No, the bill definitely hasn't gone up in smoke. The process is a lot more complicated than that. [The] decision isn't final. It has to go through other house committees....We've got a long ways to go. The bill will continue to be amended so long as it doesn't get voted down by one of the committees."
This bump in the road could become the typical growing pains for the many states that have to legalize through legislatures because ballot measures aren't an option.
"The difficulty of a legislature is that you have to get through so many committees," explained Simon. "And every one has the ability to kill the bill. This one barely got through the judiciary. Gutting it and getting it through the judiciary was the only way to keep the ball bouncing."
What happens next?
The current version isn't final. But is there a chance that something like the original bill could be restored?
"Oh yeah, it's absolutely possible," said Simon. "This bill could be restored into some kind of legalization bill....Ways and Means could theoretically turn it back into a full legalization, taxation and regulation bill. Judiciary would be annoyed, but they could do it. And other committees could change it more. Then...something passes or it doesn't."
If something passes, the bill would go to a conference of three Senators and three Representatives who would try to find middle ground between what the Senate passed and what the House approved.
"It would be unlikely that they would revert solely to the Senate bill," cautioned Simon. "Usually it's a negotiation between the two versions."
Senate could include legalization in a larger bill
If the House kills the bill, there's another way for the Senate to push ahead with legalization. They could attach it to a different bill sent to them from the House. For example, if the House sent the Senate a bill that would increase funding to public schools, the Senate could attach marijuana legalization to that bill before passing it. That basically forces the House to compromise on legalization or sacrifice the bill they worked hard on.
But that's a "last ditch effort," says Simon. Proponents of legalization want the bill to pass the House so that they can hash out the document in conference. They want to avoid a "war of attaching things" if possible because the House could later retaliate by attaching something the Senate won't like to another bill down the road.
However, they might consider that option given their frustration with the House.
"The Senate's position is still in favour of legalizing and taxing marijuana," said Simon. "They're annoyed at what's going on in the house, so it's going to be an interesting time. Fat Lady hasn't sung yet."
Simon adds that however things shake out, we're in for an exciting end to Vermont's attempt to legalize recreational marijuana use.
"Anyone who thinks that the final chapter of S.241 has been written might be missing a pretty interesting ending to the book. It's not a sporting event you want to leave before the end of the 4th quarter," said Matt Simon, New England Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project.