Senate sends marijuana legalization to House for second time


MONTPELIER >> Senators are trying to prod the House into action on legalizing marijuana by sending their legislation over a second time — this time attached to a House bill.

The Senate attached the full text of S.241, which passed the body in February, to a separate bill as an amendment Wednesday. The underlying bill, H.858, makes a series of miscellaneous changes to criminal procedure.

The move, spearheaded by Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, comes as S.241 has reached a standstill in a House committee.

However, House Speaker Shap Smith said his membership still won't vote for legalization — no matter how many times it's proposed.

After moving through two committees, one of which stripped legalization and regulation completely from the legislation, S.241 landed in the House Appropriations Committee in mid-April. According to Smith, there is not sufficient support to move it out of that committee.

Sears attached the marijuana legalization structure to H.858 in three amendments. The first makes a technical correction to the 2013 statute that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. The second amendment includes the parts of S.241 that would legalize possession of small amounts of pot by adults age 21 and up. The third adds the remainder of the bill, including the regulatory structure.

The three amendments constitute the entirety of S.241 as well as language that would create an intention to further review the issue of growing marijuana at home and selling on a smaller scale.

The underlying bill, just three pages long, clarifies when sex offenders' information will be posted to the online registry and clarifies policy around expungement of a criminal record.

No members of the Senate challenged whether the amendments were germane to the underlying bill, though Sen. Helen Riehle, R-Chittenden, did question Sears briefly about the relationship between one amendment and the bill.

The third amendment passed on a vote of 16 to 12. The bill passed on the same vote.

Sears said he sent the contents of S.241 to the other body again because he wants House lawmakers to weigh in on the issue of legalization.

"It gives them the opportunity to make decisions," Sears said, "and given that the (marijuana) bill is hung up in the Appropriations Committee, I just felt that this was the appropriate bill to do it on."

Shap Smith

Sears noted that at the end of the session, it is common to consolidate bills in order to ensure they move before adjournment. "I don't think it's any different than what we do with dozens of bills," Sears said.

Even though the proposal to legalize and regulate marijuana is coming to the House again, that does not mean the lower chamber will give it any warmer a reception.

According to Smith, the move does not force a vote on the House floor. He noted that the strategy Sears employed is a common one in the Statehouse, and one many lawmakers expected.

"It's not like this hasn't been anticipated for some time," Smith said.

If H.858 comes to the House floor, likely the body would vote not to concur with the Senate version, which would set up a conference committee. If the legalization structure does make it to the floor in the conference committee version of the bill, Smith said, "it will lose, and it will lose badly."

He said there are "not very many" votes in favor, but wouldn't give a specific number. "I can tell you that it is a significant minority," Smith said.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said his caucus has not taken an official stance on the bill but that surveys of House Republicans show no members willing to support it.

Members of the Senate who opposed the pot bill when it was on the floor in February maintained their stance.

President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, an opponent of S.241, said he sees this as a "clear push" to allow corporations to make money on a legalized pot market.

"I think it's a waste of our time," he said.

Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, said after Wednesday's vote that she did not understand what was happening when Sears offered his first amendment, and questioned whether it was germane.

"It's not a good way to do things, and we all know that," Flory said.

Floor amendments and integration of bills are not uncommon tactics, she said, but she pointed out that Sears' amendments were much longer than the additions typically offered on the floor.

"It is proof that you should never watch sausage or laws being made," Flory said.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, introduces amendments that would legalize and regulate marijuana. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger


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