Vermont Lawmakers Ignore Sessions, Vote to Legalize Marijuana
Lawmakers in the Green Mountain State moved closer to becoming the first body of elected officials to legalize marijuana without the help of a ballot initiative, but the job isn’t yet done.
Unfazed by the fury and worry emanating from Washington, D.C., Vermont’s House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over.
Vermont has been on the cusp of legalizing cannabis since last May, thanks to its elected legislature — which would make Sen. Bernie Sanders’s home state the first in the union to legalize cannabis via the normal lawmaking process and not voter initiative.
Back in May, citing small quibbles and not any sort of “philosophical” opposition to cannabis legalization, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a legalization bill approved by both houses of the state legislature.
Negotiations on a compromise bill have been ongoing ever since. The results of that effort, H. 511, would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and cultivate a small amount of cannabis at home.
That bill now heads to the state Senate, which approved a very similar compromise effort last summer. Barring any unforeseen delays or last-minute concerns, the current bill should then head back to Scott’s desk for final approval.
As the Burlington Free Press reported, H.511 would not create a regulated and taxed marketplace like the one that launched Jan. 1 in California, and the ones approved by voters — but still in the planning stages — in nearby Massachusetts and Maine.
All that, in theory, would come later — but how willing lawmakers will be to buck the federal Justice Department, which announced the revocation of Obama-era marijuana-friendly policy documents on Thursday, is an open question.
For now, the bill allows adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow their own plants at home, and does not impose any taxes.
Headed into debate on Thursday, H.511 was “widely expected” to pass, the Free Press noted, but had to survive several efforts to delay the vote altogether or substantially change the bill, some of which cited Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s rescinding of the so-called Cole Memo.
Some lawmakers wanted to delay legalization’s effective date until summer of 2019, or hold off until Vermont State Police developed an effective roadside test for drivers impaired by marijuana (something no other police force has managed to do). Others wanted to wait until a report from a legalization commission that answers to Gov. Scott, and still others wanted more data from Colorado, the newspaper reported.
It’s not clear what data points lawmakers were waiting for — or what unanswered questions would be satisfied.
“This is a thoughtful, incremental approach to marijuana legalization,” said House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington in a statement, as per the Free Press. “We’re proud to be the first state in the nation to pass marijuana legalization without the pressure of a public referendum.”
It’s also unclear if Gov. Scott or state senators will suddenly discover cold feet as a result of Sessions’s move. Sessions has yet to trigger or even announce any move towards a wide-ranging crackdown on recreational cannabis, leading some marijuana industry players and observers to wonder if Thursday’s announcement wasn’t a ploy — a misdirection meant to steer attention away from offshore oil drilling, ongoing investigations into the Trump election campaign’s connection with Russian state actors or embarrassing revelations in a new book from journalist Michael Wolff.
For her part, Christina Nolan, Vermont’s U.S. Attorney, said that her boss Jeff Sessions was merely offering clarification of what we’ve known all along: Marijuana is illegal under federal law and prosecutors can take action.
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