In addition to voting down a legalization proposal, the Vermont House also rejected a measure to put the question to a nonbinding statewide referendum. Unlike 26 states, Vermont has no form of direct petition in which voters get to decide a question other than constitutional amendments. (Denver Post file)

Historic Vermont marijuana legalization plan dies in House

House votes down legalization, referendum, decriminalization compromise

MONTPELIER, Vt. — The Vermont House on Tuesday gave those hoping to make the state the first to legalize marijuana by legislation rather than referendum a major buzzkill.

The chamber’s anti-pot actions included:

• Rejecting Senate-passed language to legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. The vote was 121-28.

• Voting down, with a 97-51 vote, a measure to put the question to a nonbinding statewide referendum. Unlike 26 states, Vermont has no form of direct petition in which voters get to decide a question other than constitutional amendments. The four states and District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana have done so by referendum.

• Defeating “compromise” language promoted by leaders of the majority Democrats that stopped short of legalization but expanded decriminalization, which punishes violators with fines rather than criminal penalties. The measure would have made it a crime to possess more than 2 ounces of pot rather than 1 and more than two plants. Seventy-seven members voted against it, 70 voted in favor.

During the lead-up to the debate, there were pot puns aplenty. And toward the end of the day Tuesday, Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, labeled the efforts to liberalize Vermont’s marijuana laws “up in smoke.”

With three or four days left in a session expected to wrap up Friday or Saturday, lawmakers said they would not have time to work out the big differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

“It’s unfortunate we’re dealing with it in the final hours of the session,” said Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington. The Judiciary Committee chairman had been a principal author of the Senate bill. The Senate completed its work in late February, and Sears complained that the bill appeared to have stalled in the House for at least some of the time since then.

Critics of legalization critics were elated.

“I think all of law enforcement is happy with the results,” said Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, president of the Vermont Police Association. “It went very well.”

Merkel said he favors “a slower, deliberative approach,” in which Vermont take some time to see what happens in other states that have legalized marijuana before following suit.

Stephanie Winters, executive director of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Vermont chapter, said its member doctors area “very pleased with the House’s rejection of legalization and homegrown marijuana, and believe it is an acknowledgement of the harm that more marijuana in the state would cause, especially when it comes to the state’s youth and health outcomes.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin took the opposite view.

“The War on Drugs policy of marijuana prohibition has failed,” said a statement issued by his office. “I want to thank those House members who recognize that and worked to move this issue forward. It is incredibly disappointing, however, that a majority of the House has shown a remarkable disregard for the sentiment of most Vermonters who understand that we must pursue a smarter policy when it comes to marijuana in this state.”