Vermont's Unique Path to Marijuana Legalization

Vermont has been making headlines about potentially being the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislative process rather than by a ballot initiative.

While reports on the subject highlight some of the milestones, they rarely delve into the rather circuitous route that lead to this point. It’s noteworthy that the final bill which Governor Scott is expected to sign was originally written as a road safety bill with almost zero connection to marijuana, but was taken over as a vehicle for legalization after the bill written for that purposes was vetoed on May 24th of 2017.

Vermont Senate Bill 22 and Vermont House Bill 170 were both introduced in early 2017 as marijuana legalization measures. The House version appears to have died in the Senate Rules Committee after the House approved it on 5/3/17, though was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee on 1/3/18.

The Senate approved their version on 3/21/17 which then went to the House, where it was passed with an amendment on 4/14/17. The Senate approved that version on 4/25/17 but amended it again. The House approved that version again on 4/28, with yet another amendment. The Senate passed that version once more on 5/5/17, which the House also approved on 5/10/17. That final version was delivered to the Governor on 5/18, which he voted about a week later.

Vermont House Bill 511 was introduced on 3/21/17 as a bill to lower the legal BAC limit for school bus drivers to 0.02, require a warrant for a blood draw for suspected DUIs, make it illegal to operate a vehicle while possessing or under the influence of drugs including marijuana, slightly modify the seat belt laws, and make a few other similar legal changes. It was passed on 3/29 and sent to the Senate, which sat on it for three months before making a few other additions. It passed that on 6/21 and sent it back to the House, where it failed. It then appeared to be dead.

On January 4, 2018, Vermont House Bill 511 was completely gutted by the Senate and rewritten as a marijuana legalization bill. It was forwarded to the House and voted on that day, with numerous amendments. It failed. Amendments were shifted and another vote taken, which again failed. This happened 6 times.

On the 7th try, they managed to get a version together that would pass which was sent to the Senate, which was approved on 1/10/18.

The version passed allows the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana or 5 grams of concentrates, and the cultivation of up to 2 mature (or 4 immature) plants by a person 21 years of age or older. Possession of 2 ounces of marijuana, which is within the legal limits of other states, is a felony which can yield a $10,000 fine or up to three years in jail according to this bill.

The original version of Vermont HB511 prohibited consumption or possession of open containers of marijuana in motor vehicles, which is one of the only surviving portions of that version in the new one. Consumption in this case includes secondhand smoke. Using marijuana in a vehicle where a child under 18 is present comes with a $500 fine ($100 for tobacco products).

Following approval by the Governor, this bill will take effect July 1st, 2018.