Without a referendum, Vermont may lag in push to OK pot

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MONTPELIER >> The cartoon joint, bruised and battered to represent a bill to legalize marijuana in Vermont, laments that "they're gutting me in the House." A smoother, happier joint, representing Massachusetts, replies, "Dude, I'm serious! You gotta try a hit of this citizen's initiative stuff!"

The comic strip drawn by artist Rick Veitch and written by Stuart Savel leads the Facebook page of the group they co-founded, Vermont Home Grown. It points to the fact that all four western states and the District of Columbia that have legalized pot have something that Vermont doesn't — the possibility of a voter referendum.

"I wish voters could do a voter initiative," Veitch, of West Townsend, said in an interview. "But I don't believe it's in our (state) Constitution. I think it would be a great idea."

This year, voters in Massachusetts are likely to see a question about legalization on the November ballot, and a petition in Maine is under review by the secretary of state. Legalization supporters in California are working to collect the nearly 366,000 signatures they need to put the question before voters in November.

Vermont voters weigh in on constitutional amendments when lawmakers vote first to put the issue before the public. Voters last decided on a state constitutional amendment in 1976, when they approved the creation of a state lottery by a more than 2-1 margin. A decade later, Vermont voters defeated the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But as for citizens rising up of their own volition and passing new laws? Some form of direct democracy is offered in 26 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but not in Vermont. And even some of the most ardent supporters of pot legalization in the Vermont Legislature say that's OK with them.

Rep. Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive, and Sen. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat from Chittenden County, have been pushing legalization for years. But both expressed trepidation about the way referendum campaigns can be overrun by big-money contributors.

"There's certainly some appeal to it," Pearson said of the initiative petition process. "Direct democracy — take it right to the voters. But since our campaign finance world is so broken and so corrupted, it does make me nervous."

Several lawmakers said passing legislation has a key advantage over referenda in that a committee of lawmakers can study an issue in depth as they craft a proposal.

"I just think it (the referendum process) doesn't really provide opportunity for enough vetting and the ability to sort of push and pull on the provisions to understand what might need to be changed," said House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown. "A referendum is essentially just an up and down vote on language that is static."

Smith said legalization faces several potential pitfalls in the final weeks of this year's legislative session and that he would not bet all his chips on passage.

For those supporting liberal or progressive policies, the record is mixed on whether legislation or referendum should be the preferred method. Oregon voters were the first to approve physician-aided dying in 1994; Vermont was the first state to legislate a similar measure, but not until 2013. Vermont's Legislature in recent years has passed gay marriage and a labeling requirement for genetically modified food. Similar measures were defeated when put to voters in California.

Zuckerman argued that even without direct ballot measures, there's ample opportunity for citizens to get involved.

"In a deliberative process, you actually can have citizens call their legislators and give input," Zuckerman said. "And the good news in Vermont is, when a legislator gets five or eight calls from their constituents, that actually can change the vote of a legislator. That's very real. And so I think citizens have an opportunity to influence this process if they get engaged with it."


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