Is Vermont About To Legalize Cannabis?

Vermont this week may become the ninth state to take significant action towards legalizing cannabis. It all comes down to the decision of the governor.

Either way, the Green Mountain State has already set major marijuana precedent this month. It became the first state in the nation to approve recreational cannabis through its Legislature.

The other eight states (and District of Columbia) have all legalized pot via voter ballot. Other states have proposed bills in their Legislature for recreational cannabis, but these have all failed to advance.

The Vermont Senate approved the state’s legalization bill 20-9 on March 5. Five days later, the state’s House of Representatives passed the proposal by a 79-66 margin.

The bill would legalize possession of up to one ounce of cannabis, as well as two mature pot plants or four immature plants, for adults 21 years old and up. This would become effective July 1, 2018, should the measure become law.

Further, the bill would establish a nine-person commission to research optimal practices for taxing and regulating cannabis, with an eye towards a future legal market.

Whether or not all that occurs now depends on Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

The bill reached his office on May 18. He has five days to decide whether or not to veto, or approve with his signature. If the governor takes no action in that timeframe, then the bill automatically becomes law.

Based on his public statements it is not easy to forecast his decision.

On one hand, Gov. Scott has said that he has no philosophical opposition to legal cannabis. At the same time, he has expressed concern about what legal cannabis might mean for public safety. Of particular concern to him are underage marijuana abuse and the issue of intoxicated driving.

As this is such a significant and controversial bill, the governor’s office reportedly has been bombarded with emails, phone calls and other messages in favor or opposition. While some Vermont politicians believe that the public’s message to Gov. Scott is overwhelmingly in support of approval, a number of major organizations have urged that he veto the bill.

These include the Vermont Association of Police Chiefs, which wrote to the governor in opposition of legal pot. Members of the Vermont Children’s Hospital, Vermont American Academy of Pediatrics, and Vermont Medical Society reached out to Gov. Scott in asking that he veto. A group of substance abuse counselors have also contacted the governor against the bill, believing it a risk to public health and safety.

Perhaps the most likely outcome is for the governor to not take action. In that case the mechanisms of state law would officially approve the bill once the five-day period concludes later this week.

That would allow Gov. Scott to get out of the way of a marijuana movement that seeming has a majority of public approval in his state. And he would not have to ink his name to the law that set in motion the legal pot market in Vermont. For the governor it would have the appearance of a win-win. (Though of course he must answer critics who wanted him to wield his veto power.)

Whatever the outcome in the governor’s office, the actions of Vermont’s Legislature have already set important precedent. Gov. Scott does not need to approve this bill for it to make a major difference on the national level. Other state legislatures that are considering cannabis bills — of which there are many — can now look to Vermont for guidance in how politicians can bring sensible cannabis regulations into law.