New England Goes "420-Friendly"

In early January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded guidelines spelled out in the Cole Memo - a document penned by former President Barack Obama’s administration which allowed states with legalized marijuana to regulate their markets with minimal federal interference. That very same day, the Vermont Senate passed a bill which allows adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to two plants at a time at home.

Vermont is set to become the ninth state to fully legalize cannabis and the first one to do so through legislation rather than a ballot initiative. Governor Phil Scott (R), has already reassured his constituents that he will sign the bill into law.

“We’ll take a look at it to make sure it’s technically correct, and then I’ll sign the bill,” Scott said during a Statehouse press conference yesterday. “This is a libertarian approach. I’ve said I’m not philosophically opposed to it. I know there are diverse opinions … as to whether we should move forward, but I still firmly believe that what you do in your own home should be your business, as long as it doesn’t affect someone else.”

“This is a big step forward for Vermont,” said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group. “Vermonters should be proud that their state is becoming the first to do this legislatively, rather than by ballot initiative.”

Just five days later, on January 9th, the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted to decriminalize marijuana making it the 22nd state to do so. The legislation, which will take effect in the next few months, allows possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana. Previously, the penalty for simple possession could result in fines of up to $2,000 and imprisonment of up to one year.

More importantly, with this action, the entire region of New England has now, in one measure or another, become "420-friendly."

Although Maine had already legalized the sale and growing of recreational cannabis in 2016, albeit by a narrow margin, the law has gone through a number of setbacks, with lawmakers spending a considerable amount of time to draft and redraft regulations, which were in turn vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage (R).

The newest effort to finalize the legal framework took place last Tuesday when legislators restarted the process. The possibility of a federal crackdown has, however, created feelings of unease among many of the participants.

“From our vantage, it just adds more confusion to something that was already really confusing,” commented Mike Saxl, a lobbyist representing Narrow Gauge Holdings, a medical marijuana company.

Massachusetts is one of the eight states that have currently legalized pot for recreational use. Rep. Seth Moulton, who represents the state’s 6th Congressional District, voiced his concerns over the Trump Administration being out of touch with the wishes of the public.

“Voters in my state made a decision to be proactive and move forward to recognize that a prohibition isn’t going to make marijuana go away — we need to regulate it to make it safer,” Moulton said in a statement Wednesday. “That’s what we should be doing for the country, and the Trump Administration should not be trying to drag backwards those of us who are moving forward.”

Mass. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also harshly criticized Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice, saying that their actions are “reckless” and said that this action “disrupts the ability of states to enforce their own drug policies and puts our public health and safety at risk.”

Although Connecticut is still far from legalizing recreational marijuana, the possession of cannabis was decriminalized in the state back in 2011 when then Gov. Dannel Malloy signed legislation that reduced the penalty for cannabis possession to a $150 fine for a first offense.

Finally, In the tiny state of Rhode Island, where medical marijuana has been legalized since 2006, efforts have been undertaken to go fully recreational. Each year since 2011, there has been an attempt to bring full legalization to the state, but so far, all efforts have been unsuccessful.

A February 2017 poll showed 59% of Rhode Islanders are in favor of adult-use legalization. However, the state has some of the strictest penalties for trafficking with possession of more than 5 kg of marijuana being punishable by 20 years of incarceration and fines of between $25,000 and $100,000.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Connecticut since 2012. Recreational cannabis use is still illegal in the state, but has been decriminalized. Anyone over 21 caught with less than ½ ounce will receive a civil penalty akin to a traffic violation.

According to a March 2015 Quinnipiac University poll, two-thirds of Connecticut voters support making possession of small amounts of cannabis legal for adults, but efforts to legalize pot in the cash-strapped state have failed the past few years. And Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has repeatedly stated that legalizing recreational marijuana “isn’t a priority." 

Speaking of the events in Vermont, Director Erik Altieri, Executive director at The National Organization To Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) has stated, “While prohibitionists like Attorney General Jeff Sessions desperately try to force our country to return to the dark ages, his flailing seems to be for naught, as Vermont is now positioned to be the first state to legalize marijuana possession by legislative action.”

Altieri believes Vermont will not be the last state to legalize marijuana by legislative action. “The American people have made their position clear,” he said. “it is time to move away from the failed policies of the past and to move in the sensible direction of legalization. Vermont will likely be the first state to take such an action this year, it is unlikely to be the last with New Jersey, Delaware, New Hampshire, Connecticut and others likely to give legalization legislation serious consideration during the 2018 legislative session.”

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