Vermont's marijuana legalization bill has the support of Gov. Peter Shumlin. (David McNew, Getty Images)

As Vermont legalization falters, lawmakers have last-gasp alternative

Lawmakers are proposing a compromise for decriminalized possession of up to 2 ounces and cultivation of up to two plants

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Key legislative leaders said Monday they doubted they could muster support in the House for a Senate-passed bill legalizing marijuana in Vermont, and delayed until Tuesday a vote on compromise legislation calling for expanded decriminalization.

UPDATE: The House voted overwhelmingly against legalization on Tuesday.

But prospects even for that measure — replacing criminal penalties with fines akin to a traffic ticket for possession of up to 2 ounces and cultivation of up to two plants — appeared uncertain Monday.

Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, the leader of majority Democrats in the House, said Monday night that the amendment containing the compromise language had not yet been drafted. As for whether it had the votes to pass, she said, “The outcome is unclear.”

The House did approve, on a 133-13 roll call vote, a separate measure expanding Vermont’s medical marijuana law to a broader range of patients with pain by replacing the words “severe pain” with “chronic pain.” The current law has made it easier for some patients to get opiates than marijuana for pain treatment, supporters of the change said. It also expands the law to cover patients with glaucoma, an eye disorder.

The Senate passed a bill in late February calling for legalization of up to an ounce by people 21 or older, and setting a system to license and tax growers and retailers. The Senate did not allow for home cultivation, something supporters in the House have demanded be included in the bill.

But in the 150-member House, overall support for legalization has been far weaker than in the Senate.

Assistant Democratic Leader Rep. Kate Webb of Shelburne said Democratic leaders did not want to bring a bill to the floor just to have it killed.

“What is something that the House could do that isn’t just going to be a negative vote?” Webb said. Aware that other states were moving on the issue — Maine and Massachusetts may face referenda in November — Webb said Vermont lawmakers might be willing to “move the conversation forward but stop short of legalization.”

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, said he, too, wanted to wait until it was clear that advocates for legalization had the needed support in the House — perhaps next year.

“It’s not completely baked yet,” he said of the legalization proposal, employing one of the many puns the issue seems to attract.

Still, Smith relented and said he would not block the House from voting.

“Unfortunately, I think it may do some long-term harm to the issue. I was trying to avoid that,” he said.