Vermont First Legislature In Nation To Legalize Marijuana

May 11, 2017

The Vermont House has voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana, making it the first state in the country to legalize pot via its legislative body. But it’s unclear if the governor will sign it into law.

The Vermont House decided to accept the Senate version of the marijuana bill and passed S.22 Wednesday on a 79 to 66 vote.   The legislation makes small amounts of marijuana legal to possess and grow starting in July 2018. The bill also eliminates penalties for possession of one ounce of marijuana and two mature and four immature plants for people over age 21. It retains criminal penalties for possessing larger amounts.  
The bill includes a provision creating a nine-member commission to develop a tax and regulate law that the legislature will consider next year.  

Marijuana Policy Project New England Political Director Matt Simon notes that eight states legalized pot via ballot initiative, but Vermont sets a precedent in its deliberative legislative passage.   “We’ve seen really all of the New England legislatures take a much more serious look at marijuana legalization and regulation with the knowledge that it’s coming to the region, that there will be retail stores in Massachusetts and Maine probably by next summer.  So Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, all of those states have seen increased discussions of this issue. And in Vermont that led to the Legislature actually passing a bill and sending it on to the Governor this year.”

Simon calls passage of this bill a good first step forward.   “Overall it’s a limited bill and the fact that under the compromise version it wouldn’t take effect until next summer is something that a lot of advocates aren’t happy about but for those who are concerned about the state’s response in getting public safety and public health issues addressed it would certainly give the state more time.  More officers could be trained as drug recognition experts.  More education programs could be deployed.  So it’s a compromise. We certainly didn’t get everything we wanted in that bill but having the study commission to really take a hard look at the regulated market options and sort through what’s happening in other states I think will be very valuable for the Legislature if in fact it happens. And we see it as a limited step, a compromise, and we’re eager to see it move forward.”

House members debated the bill for an hour before voting.  Burlington Republican Representative Kurt Wright is among those who oppose the measure.  “I supported medical marijuana. I also supported decriminalization.  But I think that in terms of actually taking the next step and moving to legalization, and then the next step that they want to take which is regulation and commercialization, there are simply too many unanswered questions for me to get on board for that now.  There’s questions about highway safety. There’s questions about whether or not it increases usage amongst teenagers.  And in terms of why we would need to do it right now people are not going to jail, not going to prison, for usage of small amounts of marijuana.  It’s been decriminalized. So I hope that the governor vetoes it.”

The bill was all but dead last week as the legislature planned to adjourn over the weekend.  But when the session continued the bill resurfaced.  Wright finds that unfortunate.  “It’s unfortunate that it’s been resurrected in this way in the waning days of the session when everybody thought we were leaving last week. To me this is just too big an issue to plunge into with unknown, you know, questions that are not answered, that we don’t have appropriate data on from Colorado and other states.  I just think this issue is too big to make a mistake on. And so I certainly hope that the Governor considers that.”

The bill now goes to Republican Governor Phil Scott, who has expressed reservations about it.  
He told reporters at the Statehouse Wednesday that he doesn’t believe it is a priority for Vermonters.
Calls to the governor’s office were not returned in time for broadcast.