The Vermont House of Representatives finalized its approval of a bill to legalize the retail sale of marijuana on Thursday, but Gov. Phil Scott (R) said he’s not happy with at least one key component of the legislation.
Though the House cast a strong initial vote in favor of the legislation on Wednesday, the measure required one additional vote to formally clear the chamber. Members gave third reading passage to the bill in a voice vote.
Vermont legalized the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use in 2018, but there is currently no way for consumers to legally purchase marijuana. The current bill would resolve that by establishing a commercial cannabis market in the state, creating various categories of business licenses, and setting tax rates on legal sales.
Because the Senate already approved S. 54—with a veto-proof majority—last year during the first half of the two-year legislative session, House and Senate leaders are now expected to appoint members to a bicameral conference committee to reconcile differences between the two bodies’ versions of the legislation.
As was the case the prior day’s consideration, lawmakers first took up several amendments prior to the vote on Thursday.
A proposal to prohibit advertising by marijuana businesses—with an exception for labels on products or educational and editorial materials—was adopted in a voice vote.
Also in a voice vote, members approved a measure specifying that the Department of Public Safety would pay for tests of cannabis products with business licensing fees instead of from its regulatory budget
An amendment to expand public disclosure requirements for marijuana business applicants and their investors was rejected by the chamber in a vote of 48-93.
An amendment stipulating that law enforcement have discretion to administer saliva tests or breathalyzers (should such a device testing for THC impairment prove effective in the future) to people suspected of driving under the influence was also defeated, in a vote of 27-117. The saliva samples would not be have been taken at the roadside, under the proposal, and the results could not have been used as evidence of impairment in court proceedings and could not by themselves have been used as probable cause for arrests.
Allowing law enforcement to easily conduct such tests has been a major priority for Scott, who in the past has said he’s opposed to commercial legalization largely because of concerns about impaired driving.
It’s not exactly clear what Scott will do when the final legislation arrives on his desk. He had initially vetoed a noncommercial legalization bill lawmakers passed in 2017 but, after garnering concessions on certain provisions, signed a revised version into law early in 2018.
Following the House vote on Thursday, the governor said he’s not satisfied with how the legislation that emerged from the House would require police to obtain a warrant before doing a saliva test.
“I view this as the same as a breathalyzer,” he said, referring to how officers don’t need warrants to administer the alcohol impairment testing device. “It’s not evidentiary, but could be utilized to help those on the road to help determine whether there’s any impairment.”
That said, top lawmakers and an administration official recently indicated that the governor is “at the table” in discussions about the latest reform move and would be open to using cannabis tax revenue to fund an after-school program he’s pushing.
During Wednesday’s earlier floor consideration, an amendment was approved to explicitly provide funding for such an initiative.
“The House has bent over backwards to address the various issues that Gov. Scott has raised with the legislation,” Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate, told Marijuana Moment.
“It appears the only remaining area of disagreement is the governor’s insistence on a warrantless saliva test that would blatantly violate the people’s rights enshrined in Vermont Constitution,” he said. “I hope that as the governor learns more about our Constitution, he will see why his position is untenable.”
In addition to reconciling varying provisions concerning advertising, impaired driving and roadside testing, the House and Senate will also have to come to an agreement on issues such as the tax rate for legal sales.
Vermont residents are strongly in favor of the general reform move, according to a poll released earlier this month by the Marijuana Policy Project. That survey showed that about three-in-four Vermonters support allowing adults to purchase marijuana “from regulated, taxpaying small businesses.”
In neighboring New Hampshire, the House approved a bill last week that would create a policy similar to what Vermont currently has, allowing adults to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal use without a retail component.
This story has been updated to include comments from Scott.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.