Marijuana plants sit under lights at a licensed growing facility in Arlington, Wash., in January 2015. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press file)

Vermont marijuana legalization bills stay alive as lawmakers extend session

MONTPELIER, Vt. — In the waning days of the legislative session, Vermont’s efforts to legalize marijuana appeared to have stalled. But Friday afternoon, one day before legislative leaders plan to adjourn, the Senate approved a marijuana legalization bill that they say serves as a compromise.

The legislation is nearly identical to the legalization measure the House already has passed, and key House lawmakers are behind it. Sen. Dick Sears, Reps. Maxine Grad and Chip Conquest, all Democrats and staunch legalization advocates, had been crafting the legislation during recent days.

It’s unclear when the House will take up the legislation. Lawmakers had hoped to adjourn Saturday, but Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson tweeted the House would go into recess Friday and resume Wednesday.

When the House discusses the marijuana legislation, members could take a vote or attempt to send the bill to a conference committee, where House and Senate lawmakers would hash out the details in the final hours of the 2017 session.

Small amounts of marijuana would be legal to possess and grow starting in July 2018 under the bill the Senate passed Friday. In the meantime, a nine-member commission will develop a law that would tax and regulate marijuana and present it to the legislature next year.

“This is an effort, Mr. President, to compromise. To find a way for Vermont join two other New England states to have a legalized, regulated seed-to-sale system at some point in the hopefully near future,” said Sears, a key player in Vermont’s legalization effort.

Maine and Massachusetts have legalized marijuana.

Vermont senators voted 20-9 to pass the legalization measure.

“We cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand,” said Republican Sen. Joe Benning, a longtime legalization advocate.

Opposition to the bill was muted, partly because it was a foregone conclusion it would pass. Senators already approved a bill that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana weeks ago.

Marijuana legislation isn’t the only outstanding major issue. House and Senate budget writers still are haggling over how to fund teachers’ retirement, and hanging over every lawmaker’s head is the possibility of a veto.

Republicans and Democrats are split over how to realize up to $26 million in savings due to new, cheaper health care plans for teachers mandated under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott and House Republicans narrowly lost a vote late Wednesday to pass their plan, which would force teachers to negotiate their health care benefits directly with the state.

“It was a tough vote,” said House Republican minority leader Don Turner. “My perspective now is the governor has to issue a veto threat.”

Democrats say forcing teachers to negotiate with the state infringes on teachers’ collective bargaining rights and proposed an alternate system that would keep negotiations at the local level.

But Scott said he isn’t convinced the Democrats’ plan would work and has said it would be “irresponsible” to leave the statehouse without developing a system to save the money and lower property taxes.

Scott has yet to grant House Republicans’ wish by saying he will veto the budget so as to force lawmakers into considering his plan.