How Vermont Became the First State to Legalize Cannabis Through the Legislature
Lawmakers divulge how they fought against the political odds to legalize cannabis possession, use and cultivation without a voter initiative.
While cannabis legalization is often cited as one of the fastest moving policy changes in American politics, one state has been taking the slow and steady approach for nearly two decades.
Vermont notched its most recent victory in January, becoming the first state to legalize cannabis for adult use through the legislature. Eight other states and Washington, D.C. have only done so through voter referendum.
In 1981, Vermont started its decades-long counterattack on the War on Drugs by establishing its Cannabis Therapeutic Research Program, which studied marijuana’s therapeutic effects on cancer and other severe illnesses. Then, in 2004, Vermont became the second state (following Hawaii in 2000) to legalize medical cannabis through the legislature. Decriminalization followed in 2013, and shortly after, the state commissioned the RAND Corporation to study full legalization in the state.
“Vermont has been way ahead of the curve,” says Matt Simon, the Marijuana Policy Project’s director for the New England region.
“It’s not a surprise to me that they were first to legalize through the legislature,” Simon says.
As policy discussions took shape during last year’s legislative session, it became clear that there were two major political hurdles to overcome: Vermont’s House of Representatives and Republican Governor, Phil Scott.
“The House had a lot of hesitations about this policy change,” says Rep. Maxine Grad, a Democrat representing the area east of Montpelier, Vermont.
While the state’s Senate passed a comprehensive cannabis legalization bill that would have established a taxed and regulated marketplace, the House was only willing to go as far as legalizing possession, use and cultivation.
The final stumbling block was the governor. While his predecessor, Peter Shumlin, supported comprehensive legalization, Scott had serious reservations. He vetoed a bill very similar to the one that eventually passed last summer, and said he had “mixed feelings” as he signed legalization into law in January.
Under the new law, Vermont has no legal framework for buying and selling cannabis, but possession and use are legal. The state’s cannabis advocates are now turning their attention to setting up a legal market, which Scott is not in any rush to do. In fact, some believe he is deliberately slowing that process down
While Vermont has already studied legalization — first through the RAND study and then a state commission established last fall, Scott also created a commission to study highway safety public health and a regulatory system back in September 2017.
Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman questions the need for further study.
“We passed a bill to study how to implement a tax and regulate model,” Zuckerman explains. “[Gov. Scott’s] model was about discovery when we already know these things. His bill pushes things out for two years. It’s a delay tactic. We already produced a tax and regulate model. Vermont has already been investigating this topic for five years. We have ample evidence.”
While further legislative progress isn’t expected this year, there is hope that Scott will eventually be convinced to sign a tax and regulate bill, something he has said he won’t do until he has solid answers on certain issues, particularly highway safety.
“I’m inclined to take him at his word when he says philosophically he believes people should make this choice [to use cannabis] for themselves,” says Simon.
“He ran with support from police chiefs who were not happy at all about legalization, so I give him a lot of credit for doing the right thing or at least one step of the right thing,” says Simon.
According to both Simon and Zuckerman, some opponents to legalization have already come around. Vermont politicians, it seems, are willing to take an honest look at the data, and listen to one another.
“Relationships matter,” says Zuckerman. “People like myself continue to challenge prohibition by saying, ‘So how is this different from alcohol?’ Prohibition failed. We have a thriving microbrew industry that we market and are very proud of. Yet we talk about cannabis like it’s worse, when it’s not. That comes from decades of racial and economic injustice.”
In the end, economics may be what nudges the Green Mountain State into adopting a cannabis marketplace. Neighboring Massachusetts is setting up its regulatory framework after voters said yes to legalization in 2016, and nearby Maine is doing the same (despite some foot-dragging from its governor). When cannabis shops are just a drive away, Vermont may see little harm in shortening that trip and collecting taxes on money Vermonters are spending anyway. With those three states in various stages of legalization, and the New Hampshire legislature taking steps in that direction, cannabis legalization has arrived in New England.
Originally published in Issue 31 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE
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