The weather may be freezing, but New England pot policy is heating up right out of the gate in 2018, with three big legalization votes since the new year began.
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n Wednesday morning, Vermont’s senate passed a bill that will legalize cannabis in the state, sending the bill to the governor’s desk to be signed into law, and establishing the state as the clear favorite to become the first in the nation to legalize cannabis through the legislature rather than ballot initiative.
The bill, H.551, passed Vermont’s House of Representatives last Thursday. Last year, Governor Phil Scott vetoed pretty much the same bill, but last December, he promised he was ready to sign off on H.551 on Vermont Public Radio, citing his approval of the bill’s “libertarian approach.”
While not as robust as some of the ballot initiatives the state has seen before, this bill will eliminate Vermont’s civil penalty for possessing one ounce or less of marijuana and remove penalties for possession of up to two mature marijuana plants and up to four immature plants. The bill does not authorize a regulated commercial cannabis market. The new rules will kick in this July, assuming Gov. Scott follows up on his promise.
“This is a big step forward for Vermont,” said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Vermonters should be proud that their state is becoming the first to do this legislatively, rather than by ballot initiative.”
This also marks another victory for Simon, who has led marijuana reform efforts in Northern New England for a decade. We asked him his thoughts on the rapid pace of things to kick the year off.
“It’s really satisfying to finally see this bill go to the governor of Vermont’s desk with him having clearly said he would sign it,” Simon told Cannabis Now. “Some people are still in the ‘It’s too good to be true’ mode. I think they’re waiting for something to go wrong somehow, but he’s made it very clear he’s going to sign the bill. Marijuana will be legal for adults to grow, possess and share.”
When it came to circling the wagon after last year’s near miss, Simon said they really didn’t have to do much. “The heavy lifting was last summer,” said Simon. They even gained a few votes last year. Simon also believes there weren’t really any concessions from last year’s bill prior to the governor’s promise, and said “everything was certainly within reason from our perspective.”
Simon said advocates will continue to work with elected officials on the details of what’s to come.
New Hampshire Also Moves Towards Legalization
On Tuesday, New Hampshire’s House of Representatives voted to pass a similar legalization bill to the Vermont legislation. It’s a big step forward, but advocates in New Hampshire realize they have a steep hill to climb, as New Hampshire’s governor has already coming out against the bill. Plus, the bill hasn’t yet passed New Hampshire’s senate, where most progressive cannabis legislation has failed over the last decade in the “Live Free or Die” state.
Simon was particularly taken aback when New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu cited the current opioid crisis devastating the state among his reasons for coming out against the legislation.
“I was really disappointed he would go there. A lot of people saw it as a step back for him,” said Simon.
The bill is now on its way to the Ways and Means Committee, despite it not having anything to do with taxes. Simon thinks there’s a chance the committee could send it back and say “none of our business,” but he thinks the outlook on the bill’s future is hazy.
No matter what happens, the bill will most likely make it to the senate, where Simon is expecting a lively debate.
We asked Simon if he felt that Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recent announcement he would be rescinding the Cole Memo had galvanized any lawmakers in New Hampshire or Vermont to a “yes” vote this week.
“I don’t know,” Simon replied. “What happened in Vermont would have happened exactly the same way with or without the Department of Justice announcement. I doubt it impacted any votes in New Hampshire either. These are bills the legislators were going to act on anyway.”
In Simon’s view, it was more important to note that nobody was deterred by the DOJ announcement. “[Sessions] was brought up on the house floor in Vermont and nobody seemed to care.”
Other New England States Face Prohibition
As for the rest of New England, Simon said, “I think everyone is just trying to move things forward. There’s an awareness that prohibition days are over and we need to figure out what the best public policies are. Obviously, the announcement from the Department of Justice had people asking a lot of questions and created some uncertainty for policymakers, but there’s really a strong will in 2018 to step up.”
Current San Francisco Cannabis Task Force member Jesse Stout led Rhode Island’s effort to legalize medical marijuana at the beginning of New England’s wave of policy reform back in 2006. We asked his take on the pace of change to start the year.
“As a former New Englander myself, I’m excited that Vermont and New Hampshire are racing to become the first states to legalize cannabis legislatively, with Connecticut heating up,” Stout said. “Maine and Massachusetts are both advancing towards implementing their 2016 initiatives this year. Rhode Island’s two commissions studying medical cannabis improvement and adult legalization are finally both active at the same time. After winning the low-hanging-fruit initiative states, the forefront of cannabis legalization is swinging back from the ballot box to state legislatures.”
Stout said that he believes that Vermont’s legalization will push Rhode Island towards similar action.
“Rhode Island legislators did not want to be the first state legislature to legalize adult-use cannabis. Last June, they voted to study the issue first instead. If Vermont does indeed legalize adult-use cannabis, as expected in the next few hours or days, then and only then will Rhode Island be ready to follow suit,” he said.
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