On Monday, Vermont became the ninth state in the United States to legalize recreational marijuana, and the first to do so through state legislative action. Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine — plus Washington, D.C. — all passed their legalization measures through ballot initiatives.
Vermont’s approach to marijuana legalization also seems to be more limited and deliberate than the process has been in other states, undoubtedly the result of having to get through the legislative debate process and win the approval of Vermont Governor Phil Scott, a Republican who did sign the bill into law but was far from an enthusiastic supporter.
After signing the bill, Scott posted a statement on his website saying that he was signing the bill “with mixed emotions.”
“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,” said Scott.
Under the bill, H. 511, marijuana remains a controlled substance but a small exception is carved out for personal use. After the law takes effect on July 1, personal possession of marijuana will be decriminalized for adults who are at least 21 years old. Specifically, what is allowed is personal possession of no more than one ounce, and cultivation of two mature marijuana plants (and four immature plants) on private property.
Consumption of marijuana in public will remain illegal, as will selling marijuana, or being under its influence while operating a motor vehicle. Additional provisions allow schools, employers, landlords, and local governments to adopt their own policies or ordinances restricting the use or possession of marijuana.
A previous bill, S. 22, had been vetoed by Scott last May, and he conditioned his approval of H. 511 on the inclusion of certain provisions, including increased penalties for use by minors, or for adults who provide marijuana to minors, plus additional measures targeting highway safety.
A “Marijuana Advisory Commission” will review issues related to the sale and taxation of marijuana, and make recommendations by the end of the year to the Vermont General Assembly to consider before any system allowing the commercial sale of marijuana to adults will be enacted.
Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, called Vermont’s new law a “great step forward.”
“Responsible adults will soon have the freedom to enjoy a safer option legally, and law enforcement will be free to concentrate on serious crimes with actual victims,” said Simon.
The new law in Vermont follows a trend of increased public support for reducing or eliminating altogether criminal penalties for personal marijuana use. A Gallup poll from October 2017 found 64% of Americans supported legalization, the highest percentage in five decades they had polled the issue. This included, for the first time, support from the majority of Republicans.
Meanwhile, marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems determined to push the federal government in the opposite direction of these states, rescinding Obama-era policies that instructed federal agents not to attempt to enforce federal law in states that opted for legalization.
The answer may lie in Congress following Vermont’s path, a step-by-step approach to adopting laws that decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use, and studying the issue before rolling out a regulatory system for a commercial marijuana market. The nine states (plus D.C.) that have now allowed some level of legal recreational use, plus the additional dozens that allow medical marijuana uses, can provide data for the research studies.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.