Bid to legalize marijuana in Vermont goes up in smoke

Bid to legalize marijuana in Vermont goes up in smoke
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A measure that would have made Vermont the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes through the state legislature died in a special session Wednesday after a quiet lobbying campaign by legalization opponents.

The bill, which had passed the state Senate, did not earn enough votes in the state House to win fast-track status. State House Republicans voted against suspending rules to move the bill more quickly, effectively killing it until the legislature returns to Montpelier in January.

The legislature had passed a measure to legalize marijuana for recreational use earlier this year, but Gov. Phil Scott (R) vetoed that bill. Scott said he did not believe the first version went far enough to protect children, and he asked the legislature to make changes.

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In the intervening months, anti-legalization activists mounted an aggressive but quiet lobbying campaign. Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the leading group opposing legalization, hired a lobbyist and organized supporters to pressure lawmakers.

“We worked in a smart way and didn’t brag about meetings that we took or post everything we did on social media,” said Kevin Sabet, who heads the group. “We kept our opponents guessing, and we ran a smart campaign.”

Supporters of legalizing marijuana say the vote Wednesday represents only a delay, rather than a defeat. A majority of the state House voted to fast-track the bill, a sign that the votes to pass it eventually will be there once the new year rolls around.

“The only reason we aren't celebrating a legalization victory in Vermont right now is because of procedural hurdles related to the very short session. We know that the votes are there in both chambers to pass the legalization bill that lawmakers worked out with the governor,” said Tom Angell, who leads Marijuana Majority, a pro-legalization group. “When the legislature returns in January I have every confidence that the bill will be able to move forward to enactment under regular order."

When Scott vetoed the initial legislation, he said he was not “philosophically opposed” to legalizing marijuana.

But the vote Wednesday is the latest in a string of setbacks for the legalization movement after several years of gains. Legislators in Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Maryland and Delaware have blocked legalization efforts this year. The Rhode Island legislature is likely to vote on its own version next week.

Eight states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana use for recreational purposes. In all nine of those jurisdictions, voters — rather than legislatures — have passed ballot measures.

Sabet said his group is pursuing a new attack on legalization measures, one that emphasizes health and safety rather than moral objections to marijuana.

“The marijuana business is illegal, risky, and bad for public health and safety. Folks are starting to see that, and most people realize they do not want to live around a marijuana store or have to live with the effects of secondhand smoking,” Sabet said in an email. “We are pushing those messages, rather than moral ones, and we are winning as a result.”