Vermont has had the opportunity, two years in a row, to become the first state to end cannabis prohibition through legislation rather than through ballot initiative. Both years the legalization effort faced opposition from key players in the process. While the 2017 bill still stands a chance in a special veto session later this week, advocates aren’t optimistic about its prospects of passing. With pressure mounting from newly legal neighbors Massachusetts and Maine, will the Green Mountain State make history this year or continue to postpone the inevitable?
The legislative process
“One of the major hurdles has been that, so far, the majority in the Senate and the majority in House favor very different approaches to legalization,” explains Laura Subin, Director of Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana. “The House supports a simpler criminal justice reform approach that would incrementally remove and reduce penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana, including a small number of plants. This approach is similar to what’s happened in Washington D.C. The Senate favors a full taxed and regulated model similar to all the other states that have legalized.”
Legalization by legislative process typically faces more challenges than ballot initiatives because the outcome is not determined solely by the will of the voters. In this case, Subin contends, “our representatives have not caught up with the majority of Vermonters who support marijuana policy reform. There is a vocal minority in key areas of influence – such as law enforcement and the Department of Health run prevention community – that continue to use fear based tactics and misleading, unsubstantiated data…that has surrounded this debate for decades.” These outspoken opponents often have a great deal of influence with lawmakers.
Still, momentum is in legalization’s favor. Prohibitionists are losing ground all over the country and in nearby Canada. With two other states in New England legalizing last November, Vermont would no longer be the lone pioneer in its region. “Change is inevitable and opponents recognize this. The conversation has clearly moved from a question of ‘if’ Vermont should legalize to a question of ‘when,’” Subin says.
In 2016, then-Governor Shumlin publicly stated his support for legalization and would likely have signed off on the Senate’s tax and regulate bill. He even commissioned a RAND Corporation study of legalization’s probable impact on the state of Vermont. But because of the two chambers’ differing philosophies on legalization, the proposed law did not gain enough support in the House and never made it to the Governor’s desk.
During the legislative session this year, a legalization-only bill passed in the Vermont legislature. If enacted, this legislation would legalize the personal possession, use, and cultivation of small amounts of cannabis for adults over 21. The Senate agreed to support it after a great deal of conversation around the future possibility of a regulatory framework for a functioning Vermont cannabis industry. Shumlin is no longer in office, and Governor Scott does not yet support the bill. And though his ideal law is not so far off from where the bill currently stands, there are a few elements of his plan that alarm advocates, including new misdemeanor offenses related to cannabis possession.
Though Subin says it is “remotely possible” that the bill will pass during the veto session, she doubts that it will have the political will to advance through the necessary procedural hurdles. Because it’s unlikely that the bill will succeed, advocates have set their sights on 2018 when legislators could be considering a very different proposal.
A game changer for Vermont
“Legalization in Massachusetts (and elsewhere) was a game changer for Vermont,” Subin relates. She and other proponents are ready to capitalize on the momentum of nearby states moving towards taxed and regulated systems, pointing out the numerous benefits regulation would bring to their state. “As Vermont lawmakers see their neighbor reaping the benefits of legalization – including the business from Vermont consumers – they will not be able to ignore it much longer. All of the concerns that opponents of reform have raised are better addressed in a taxed and regulated environment and that too will become increasingly clear.”
The benefit to young Vermonters
Subin also sees positive outcomes for children and families as a result of cannabis legalization and regulation. “I anticipate that legalization will offer opportunities for Vermont’s children to get better, more honest and more practical education about all substances and their dangers – and relative dangers – for young people. I believe that this will happen both because new revenue will be generated for youth education and prevention and also because legalization will help further a cultural paradigm shift.
“Marijuana prohibition and the way that it has been enforced – in Vermont and around the country – has a heartbreaking history of racism and harming those who have least the most. Young Vermonters can only benefit from seeing Vermont’s leaders right this historic wrong. For a generation with instantaneous fact checking available in their pockets, legalization will help youth better be able to trust law enforcement, educators and policy makers to tell them the truth.”
We’ll be keeping our eyes on the Green Mountain State this week and our fingers crossed that they’ll make history soon through the legislative process.