In a historic move, Vermont has officially become the first US state to legalize marijuana via an act of the Legislature rather than a voter referendum. Governor Phil Scott signed the legalization bill into law on January 22, making Vermont the ninth US state to have legalized both medical and recreational marijuana.
Although it will permit the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and up to six plants beginning July 1, the law has no provisions for building a regulated market.
The action comes only two weeks after US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions’ now infamous rescission of the Cole Memo. Although Sessions’ action was not a catalyst for this legislation, it added another consideration for lawmakers and increased the political risks involved in voting in favor of legalization.
Vermont Governor, Phil Scott, vetoed similar legalization in May of 2017, citing the need for more research and clearer wording on the bill, but made it clear that he would be willing to revisit the matter. Scott said after the signing, “Today, with mixed emotions, I have signed [the bill]. 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.”
Scott declined a bill signing ceremony saying, “some people don’t feel that this is a momentous occasion.”
According to a report in Leafly, Matt Simon, New England political director for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project believes that the new law will have little impact for most of the state’s 623,000-some citizens.
“I think the vast majority of Vermonters won’t notice any change at all,” Simon said. “It’s simply eliminating a fine and eliminating a penalty for growing a small number of plants.”
Recreational use legislation is already in place in Maine and Massachusetts, although development of both programs has been stunted by lawmakers. New Hampshire is also working on legislation to allow adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and to cultivate it in limited quantities. Other states that have legalized marijuana use by adults include Alaska, California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia.
Vermont’s new law removes criminal and civil penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, or more than five grams of hashish, for persons 21 years of age or older. It also allows for the cultivation of two mature cannabis plants or four immature plants. It does not allow cultivation for commercial sales, but does outline a process for moving toward a “comprehensive regulatory structure for legalizing and licensing the marijuana market.”
Current civil and criminal penalties for possession of more than one ounce will remain in effect, including hefty fines. The stiffest penalties are levied for furnishing cannabis to a person under 21 years of age, ranging from two years in prison and a $2,000 fine, up to five years and a $10,000 fine.
The bill also establishes civil (not criminal) penalties for consuming cannabis in a public place - $100 for the first offense, $200 for a second offense, $500 for third and subsequent offenses.
Additional provisions in the bill prohibit extraction, allow landlords to ban possession or use of cannabis in a lease agreement, and prohibit a driver or passenger in a motor vehicle from consuming cannabis or possessing an open container that contains cannabis.
Paul Armentano, Deputy Director at The National Organization For the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) said in a blog post on the organization’s website, “The majority of Vermonters, like the majority of the American public, desire to live in a community where responsible adults who choose to consume cannabis are no longer criminalized or stigmatized. Governor Scott should be recognized for helping to provide Vermonters with a path forward at a time when many elected officials elsewhere are clinging to the failed policies of the past.”
Matthew Schweich, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project is quoted on the organization’s website, saying, “Gov. Scott and the Vermont Legislature made history today by removing penalties for adult possession and limited cultivation of marijuana, and they are almost certainly just the first to do so. Lawmakers around the country are finally catching up with their constituents and realizing that there is no reason to punish responsible adults for possessing a substance that is safer than alcohol. Vermont exhibited real leadership on this issue, and we urge other state legislatures to work toward sensible marijuana policies with the same diligence.”
According to a statewide survey in March by Public Policy Polling, 57% of Vermont voters support allowing adults 21 and older to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana.
Legislatures in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are also expected to consider legalizing adults use this year, while in Michigan, signatures have been submitted for a November 2018 ballot measure to regulate legal sales of marijuana.