Update, June 21: After the governor reached a compromise with legislative leaders, the Senate approved the bill. But the compromise failed in the House. “Despite the setback for 2017, Vermont’s legislature operates on a biennium, and advocates expect that progress achieved this year will be built upon when lawmakers reconvene in January,” reported MassRoots.
On Wednesday, Vermont could’ve become the first state in the U.S. to legalize marijuana through the legislature. But Republican governor Phil Scott vetoed the legislation, which was the first of its kind to be passed by a state legislature. While that version of the bill is dead, Scott suggested changes could be made to the bill in a special session this summer. Otherwise, lawmakers could revisit the issue with a new bill at the start of the next session in January.
Among the governor’s desired changes? Stricter penalties for those caught selling the drug to minors and some sort of impairment limit for stoned driving. The problem with the latter request is that there’s no scientific consensus on THC testing for impairment. While many organizations — from universities to tech startups — are working on developing a marijuana breathalyzer, no such technology currently exists.
Some advocates, however, are optimistic that the legislation still has a good chance of being amended and approved by the governor.
“While the news today is disappointing, it likely just amounts to a short delay. The governor’s comments make clear that legalization of marijuana in Vermont is only a matter of time — and some small tweaks to the bill,” Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, said in a statement. “I’m very hopeful that lawmakers will make the changes he’s asking for, and that next month the state will become the first in history to end cannabis prohibition by an act of the legislature.”
Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said he was “disappointed” by the decision, but “encouraged” by the governor’s willingness to work with the legislature during a special summer session.
“Despite the veto, this is a huge leap forward,” said Simon in a statement. “Lawmakers have an opportunity to address the governor’s concerns and pass a revised bill this summer, and we are excited about its prospects.”
Our report on the legislation originally published on May 10 continues below:
The Vermont legislature became the first in the nation to approve a recreational marijuana legalization bill in May. Lawmakers passed a measure that would allow adults to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow their own cannabis plants at home. The home-grow provision is limited to two mature plants or four immature plants.
The legislation still awaits a decision from Vermont governor Phil Scott before becoming law.
No other state legislature has passed legislation to legalize marijuana. Currently, eight states and Washington D.C. have legalized adult-use — but all legalization measures were voter-passed ballot initiatives. Maine and Massachusetts became the first Northeastern states to pass adult-use laws last November. Like most other states in the region, Vermont does not have a ballot initiative process. The lack of ballot initiatives in Northeastern states has contributed to a lack of progress on cannabis policy reform in the region.
“Vermont lawmakers made history today,” Matt Simon, a political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. “The Legislature has taken a crucial step toward ending the failed policy of marijuana prohibition. There is no rational reason to continue punishing adults for consuming a substance that is safer than alcohol.”
It’s unclear whether Scott will sign the bill. Unlike his predecessor Peter Shumlin (who was a vocal supporter of legalization), Scott has expressed reservations with legalizing marijuana.
“I didn’t say, ‘Never.’ I said, ‘Not now,'” said Scott at a press conference in February. “I still believe we should be focused on economic issues.”
Members of his administration, however, have had harsher words on the topic. “We oppose this bill,” state police major Glenn Hall told the House Judiciary Committee in February. “We speak with one voice… That’s what the governor stands for also,” added public safety commissioner Tom Anderson.
Scott could sign or veto the bill. If he did neither, the bill would become law without his signature.
“The voters and the Legislature are behind it, and we hope the governor will be, too,” said Simon.
The legislation passed the House in a 79 to 66 vote, though its path to approval has been dubious this session. The House and Senate previously passed competing legalization measures: the House opting for non-commercial legalization (similar to D.C.), and the Senate adopting a tax-and-regulate framework.
For a time, a looked like the disagreement between the two chambers would kill legalization efforts for the year. But a compromise between the two proposals emerged, and the adjournment of the legislative session was delayed, allowing the House to cast their votes on Wednesday.
Now, all eyes are on the governor to see whether the state will become the first in the nation to legalize adult-use through the legislature.
“I don’t believe this is a priority for Vermont,” Scott told the Burlington Free Press. “I believe that what we should be doing is trying to find ways to protect those on our highways, 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. Having said that, I’m going to review the bill as it’s passed.”