Today, S. 22, a bill to legalize cannabis in Vermont for adults over 21, landed on Republican Governor Phil Scott’s desk – potentially making the state the first in the country to legalize marijuana through the legislative process, and not a ballot initiative. The bill has already been approved by both chambers of the state legislature; now the governor has five days to decide whether to sign or to veto it. But even if he does neither, on Wednesday, May 24th, it would automatically become law.
If passed, the measure would legalize possession of up to an ounce of weed, two mature plants and four immature plants, beginning July 2018. It would also create a study commission, effective immediately, to look at cannabis tax-and-regulate models in other states and make recommendations for the adult use market in Vermont. (It’s unclear at this time whether Vermont would adopt a regulated market, or simply allow citizens to grow and share cannabis with their friends.)
Vermont’s legalization bill is significant because it’s the first of its kind to originate and pass within a state legislature, without citizen participation. All other adult use legalization measures passed via popular vote. “It’s a slower and difficult process,” says Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “But the reality is that prohibition has failed in Vermont, and the majority of Vermonters are ready to move on with a new approach.”
According to a March survey of 755 registered voters by Public Policy Polling, 57 percent of Vermont voters support legalization, while only 39 percent are opposed. Meanwhile, the RAND corporation reports that nearly 80,000 Vermonters – roughly 13 percent of the population – use cannabis regularly.
“The fact that Massachusetts and Maine are both moving forward with legalization and expected to have retail stores open next year is part of what’s accelerated the conversation in Vermont,” says Simon. People can already hop across the border and get cannabis from friends who grow it; soon they’ll be able to buy it in dispensaries. “Does it make sense to continue punishing those people? Probably not,” he says, adding that legalization brings economic development, jobs and tax revenue. “One of the benefits that comes with regulating and taxing marijuana is not having money leave the state, instead of going into cash registers in Maine.”
Opponents to the bill, however, are particularly troubled by the introduction of an adult use cannabis industry to Vermont. “This legislation isn’t about criminal justice reform,” says Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a vocal anti-legalization advocate, noting that Vermont’s 2013 decriminalization bill lifted penalties for up to an ounce of cannabis. He worries that S. 22 could open Vermont to a “new addictive industry” that prioritizes profits over people.
Supporters of the bill, however, argue that it favors public health. “We would have a far better handle on the use of this product if it were in a legal and regulated system,” says Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, who’s been working on cannabis law reform for 20 years. While he and the governor have a “solid mutual respect,” Zuckerman says Scott has chosen not to include him in the S. 22 decision-making process. Still, the lieutenant governor has made his support for the bill clear.
“We’d have a cleaner product,” Zuckerman says. “We’d have money for all forms of impaired driving interdiction, resources for opiate or any form of drug addiction treatment, and money for higher education and economic development, which is the best method of drug abuse prevention.”
Whether Governor Scott signs the bill, or just lets it pass, it will signal to legislators in other states they can also legalize weed without a ballot initiative, says Simon. However, while the governor has said he’s not philosophically opposed to legalization, he also wants to be sure the bill answers certain questions about public health and safety, his spokesperson Rebecca Kelley says.
“I’ll tell you with 80 percent confidence he won’t sign the bill but let it become law,” says Eli Harrington, cannabis advocate and co-founder of Heady Vermont. “Historically, he’s much more practical than he is an ideologue. Vetoing the bill would draw negative political attention, as opposed to not signing it and not supporting it, but letting it happen.”
Despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ threats to go after the cannabis industry in legal states, most people nonetheless see regulated cannabis as an eventuality, Harrington adds. “But policy makers and advocates who want to have a good cannabis paradigm in their state need to be proactive,” he says. “The tipping point has happened, cannabis is building schools, not killing people.”