MONTPELIER — In a move that could keep pot smoking illegal in Vermont, House Republicans may choose not to suspend rules to bring a revised legalization bill back up for discussion next week at the Statehouse.
When Gov. Phil Scott vetoed S.22 after the legislative session, marijuana legalization proponents hoped a revised version might catch a second wind in a two-day veto session scheduled for June 21-22.
Those hopes may be misplaced, according to House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton.
“I don’t see the big hurry. Let’s let it go through the committee process that it should go through in January,” Turner told True North. “The caucus will meet and decide whether to suspend rules. For me, (the revised bill) doesn’t really change anything, and I think a lot of people feel the same.”
Scott hasn’t issued a statement on the revisions delivered this week to his office. However, in the letter accompanying his veto, the governor urged lawmakers to learn from the experience of other states and let “science inform any policy made around this issue.”
“Policymakers have an obligation to Vermonters to address health, safety, prevention and education questions before committing the state to moving forward,” the governor stated.
Jay Diaz, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Vermont, said he thinks it’s better to push for a bill now rather than later.
“I think there’s a lot of things that will be lost if we wait until January — mainly, the commission to study the issue and actually get the right information,” he said. “So, I don’t know why anyone would be against taking a hard look at an issue that’s going to impact Vermont, regardless of whether we legalize or not.”
According to Diaz, pro-legalization lawmakers have multiple options for advancing a revised bill, including attaching it to the state budget or extending the session.
State Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, is one of only few Republicans backing legalization. He said he has listened to more than 100 hours of testimony and has been working to address the governor’s concerns even before S.22 was vetoed.
“I do understand that the House Republicans may not wish to suspend rules, which would be required in order to get this through,” Benning told True North. “But from speaking to individual House members, they believe that this is an inevitability, and they would like to become involved in the conversation rather than not.”
Benning said there’s been somewhat of an understanding that the target date for legalization should be July 2018 — the time when Vermont will become a border state to legalized marijuana in Massachusetts.
“In order to give them as much time to work as possible, it would be very helpful if (the proposed revisions) were put in place during this veto session,” he said.
However, legalization may not be so inevitable. Benning, a Republican, faces strong opposition from police, some of whom warn that legalizing pot would be “like opening Pandora’s box” on Vermont and its youth.
Benning acknowledged that public safety is a serious concern, but said government-approved marijuana use is better than the status quo.
“Our hope is that if somebody can purchase a product in a retail environment where they know the product is being tested and monitored for safety purposes, people will be attracted there as opposed to the backseat of somebody’s car,” he said.
Other legalization advocates parrot a line similar to one kids hear from peers but are taught to resist: Everyone else is doing it.
“We are effectively surrounded by states that are moving towards legalization — some of which have already legalized,” Diaz said, referencing moves by Massachusetts, Maine and Canada.
Still, Benning said it’s “up in the air” regarding what Republicans will do next week.
“My understanding is the governor is looking over the proposal, and I suspect that the governor’s office and those of us that have been working on this will agree to language by the time we get to that veto session.”