After weeks of anticipation, Vermont can now officially claim bragging rights as the first state to legalize cannabis through the state legislature rather than a voter initiative like Colorado or Washington.
On Monday, Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed H. 511, a bill that legalized the use and possession of cannabis for adults over 21 years old in the state of Vermont. When the bill goes into effect on July 1, adults over the age of 21 will be allowed to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and can legally grow two mature plants and four immature plants.
The bill does not create a framework for legal, taxed cannabis sales nor does it mention the state’s existing medical marijuana program, in which 5,000 people are enrolled and are able to purchase cannabis from medical dispensaries.
“With mixed emotions, I have signed H. 511,” Gov. Scott said on Monday, according to a statement from his office. “I personally believe that what adults do behind closed doors and on private property is their choice, so long as it does not negatively impact the health and safety of others, especially children.”
The bill stipulates that home grows must be “in an enclosure that is screened from public view and is secure,” meaning that only the cultivator and other adults with the cultivator’s permission can access the grow. Cannabis grown at home won’t count towards the one ounce total, so long as it is also stored securely.
Vermont still considers cannabis to be a controlled substance and consumption of cannabis in public spaces will still be penalized.
H. 511 came to the governor’s desk after passing Vermont’s House of Representatives on Jan. 10 and the State Senate on Jan. 4.
The path toward claiming the title of “first legislature to legalize cannabis” was a winding one. All eight states, and the District of Columbia, who currently have legalized adult-use marijuana used the ballot initiative as a vehicle to bypass the treacherous system of committees and votes needed to pass a bill into a law through the statehouse. Vermont state law, however, has no mechanism for a citizen-led initiative or referendum process, so all of Vermont’s ballot measures come directly from the legislature.
For the past few years, Vermont lawmakers have been struggling to pass legislation through both houses and win the governor’s signature. In 2016, Vermont’s Senate passed a sweeping legalization bill that followed a model of recreational cannabis similar to Colorado (regulated sales, massive adult use market, etc.) before failing in the House of Representatives 121-28.
“People were all over the place,” State Senator Dick Sears told Cannabis Now last year. “Many of the people who normally would support a bill called it a ‘corporate weed bill,’ and they did their best to kill it.”
Rep. Maxine Grad, who chairs the House Judiciary committee, said last year that the legalization bill would have allowed large-scale commercial control of the marijuana market, which she said was “not the Vermont way.”
In 2017, Rep. Grad was one of the three sponsors of a cannabis legalization bill which had no system for commercial retail and cannabis distribution. However, her more conservative bill also struggled to make its way through the Vermont legislature, because some lawmakers argued that this time the bill wasn’t going far enough towards regulation, Sears said. The bill ended up dying in committee in March last year.
But these failures appear to have ultimately payed off. According to Matt Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, “The heavy lifting was last summer.”
As for the possibility of Vermont instituting government-regulated cannabis market such as states like Colorado and California, Gov. Scott said he had reservations about cannabis education, prevention and highway safety that would need to be addressed first.
“To be very direct: There must be comprehensive and convincing plans completed in these areas before I will begin to consider the wisdom of implementing a commercial “tax and regulate” system for an adult marijuana market,” Gov. Scott said, in a statement. “It is important for the General Assembly to know that – until we have a workable plan to address each of these concerns – I will veto any additional effort along these lines, which manages to reach my desk.”
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