MONTPELIER >> Key legislative leaders said Monday they did not believe they could muster support in the House for a Senate-passed bill legalizing marijuana in Vermont.
Instead, legalization supporters were pushing for compromise language to expand decriminalization — replacing criminal penalties with civil fines akin to a traffic ticket — for possession of up to 2 ounces and cultivation of up to two plants.
The question lawmakers were discussing Monday was, "What is something that the House could do that isn't just going to be a negative vote?" said Rep. Kate Webb of Shelburne, assistant leader of the Democratic majority. 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."
That would end — at least for this year — the quest of supporters to make Vermont the first state to legalize possession of marijuana by legislation. Four other states and the District of Columbia have done so by referendum. Vermont has no mechanism for such a binding referendum, but some lawmakers expressed interest in calling for a nonbinding referendum in November.
The Senate had passed a bill legalizing the possession of up to an ounce of pot, along with a system that would license growers and retailers. Lawmakers said there would not be time for a conference committee to resolve the differences between the House and Senate before lawmakers adjourn for the year, which is expected this weekend.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has been pushing hard for a vote on legalization in the House, something House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, has resisted. Smith, who favors legalization, said he believes a negative vote would cause supporters to lose momentum.
"It's not completely baked yet," he said of the legalization proposal, employing one of the many puns and sly references 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.
Debate on the bill was expected Monday evening or Tuesday.