The land of Ben and Jerry’s, the birthplace of snowboarding and adopted home of Sen. Bernie Sanders; just a few of the reasons one easily could have presumed Vermont would be among the first to legalize cannabis. But now with State House Reps planning a massive criminal justice overhaul, the Green Mountain State seems ready to make legal cannabis a priority.
A bill introduced by the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Maxine Grad, and Rep. Thomas Burditt would remove all criminal and civil penalties for possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana, no more than two mature marijuana plants and no more than seven immature plants.
The bill is part of a swath of legislation meant to radically reconstruct the current approach to criminal justice in Vermont: in addition to the stand alone cannabis bill, other coupled legislation would reduce the penalties for cocaine and opiates. The committee is also leading efforts to revamp the quality of education in the Vermont’s correctional facilities, remove roadblocks to employment for released offenders and save the state cash and lives.
This wider approach to criminal justice reform being spearheaded by the Grad and Burditt is the reason the bill is extremely narrow in focus compared to other efforts that would seek to create a larger taxed and regulated market.
According to Matt Simon, New England Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project, the senior members of the Judiciary Committee who introduced the bill are coming from a very criminal justice-centric approach on the issue “and didn’t want to deal with hearing the tax aspects in their committee.”
These types of specifics are exactly what bogged down last year’s attempt at a more encompassing version of legalization for Vermont. While efforts went well in the Senate, the bill was then picked to the bone point-by-point in the House, all while a supportive Governor waited for something workable to come across his desk.
At the time, then-Governor Shumlin noted the need for better legal solutions.
“The War on Drugs policy of marijuana prohibition has failed. I want to thank those House members who recognize that and worked to move this issue forward,” Shumlin said. “It is incredibly disappointing, however, that a majority of the House has shown a remarkable disregard for the sentiment of most Vermonters who understand that we must pursue a smarter policy when it comes to marijuana in this state.”
That was basically the best you’re going to get, and generally the reason folks were like, “weed is probably going to be legal in Vermont this year.”
In the time since then, Vermont has welcomed new Republican Governor, Phil Scott. While in the senate he voted in favor of medical marijuana and decriminalization efforts, but has yet to come around on full legalization, as he told voters last year.
“I have said not right now. We have four other states that have legalized, until we have answers to the questions, the governor of Colorado said why don’t you wait a few years,” Scott told Vermont Public Radio last June. “I’m not saying never, the timing is not right.”
Despite a new signer in Montpelier, Simon says Vermont activists feel great about where things are headed in 2017.
“Last year was very comprehensive,” Simon said. “The big difference from last year is the new governor not being on board with full scale legalization… by taking the issues one at a time over separate bills we think we have a better chance of reform, He’s not ready for a big commercial market.”
Simon noted with the fragmented approach, you could surely expect many more bills to come through the Vermont legislature regarding the legalization of cannabis.
TELL US, do you think it still makes sense for states to “wait and see” on cannabis legalization?