On Wednesday, Vermont became the first state in the nation whose legislature voted to legalize adult use marijuana. Now pending approval from Republican Governor Phil Scott, Vermont could pioneer weed legalization through the legislative process, rather than through a ballot initiative, which states like California or Colorado have already done.
The bill, which passed the House by a vote of 79 to 66, was identical to another bill that passed the state Senate last week. According to the governor’s spokesperson Rebecca Kelley, Scott isn’t philosophically opposed to legalizing cannabis, but he wants to make sure the bill answers certain questions regarding public health and safety. If he signs the bill, it will become law on July 1, 2018.
While Scott has said he thinks legalization is ultimately inevitable, he wants to make sure safety measures are in place, like roadside cannabis DUI testing. “It’s no secret that I don’t believe this is a priority for Vermont,” he says. “I believe that what we should be doing is trying to find ways to protect those on our highways, to deliver a level of impairment that is consistent throughout the northeast, as well as to address the edibles for our kids before we move forward with legalization.”
If passed, adults over 21 would be allowed to possess and use weed, while the state would set up a nine-member commission to figure out how to best regulate and tax cannabis, which they’d present to legislators the following year.
While the crunchy, hippie home of Ben & Jerry’s and Bernie Sanders might be seem like a good candidate to legalize weed through the legislature, the bill is nonetheless controversial. “This is voting for trouble. We’ve got a lot of problems, and this is only going to make it worse,” says Democratic Representative Ben Joseph from North Hero.
However, those opposed to the bill have also been met with arguments that cannabis use is already prevalent in Vermont, and that passing the law would only allow the lawmakers to regulate what’s already happening, while putting a dent in the black market and bringing in more revenue to the state.
“This is going to happen. We can either be proactive and be part of this conversation and ensure we are thinking about all these things, including some sort of mechanism to address them, or we can just take a wait-and-see approach and deal with it next year,” says Democratic Representative Ruqaiya Morris from Bennington.
According to the RAND corporation, around 80,000 Vermonters use cannabis regularly. With legalization already having swept neighboring states, such as Maine and Massachusetts, and not to mention Canada, maintaining prohibition in Vermont will become increasingly untenable in such a close knit region. People can easily buy weed over the border, argues Republican Senator Joe Benning. “We cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand and hope that the problem will resolve itself or that it will simply go away,” he says.