Vermont, a staunchly liberal but out-of-the-way state mostly ignored by marijuana reformers, is rapidly moving to the top of the list of states likely to legalize marijuana this year. If lawmakers act within a matter of months, they could make the state the first in the nation to legalize by way of its legislature rather than a public referendum.

Vermont Gov. Peter ShumlinVermont Gov. Peter Shumlin announced in early January that he plans to support an effort to make marijuana legal by statewide legislation. Shumlin is a Democrat, and his party overwhelmingly controls both houses of the state Legislature, making it more likely the proposal will become law soon. Depending on how fast events progress, the state could see a vote on legal cannabis by as early as May. Activists are upbeat about their prospects.

Few states are as well-positioned to legalize marijuana in coming months. Vermont and two of its neighbors – Maine and New Hampshire – are bastions of rural libertarianism compared to the rest of New England. Maine is also pushing toward legalization, with a proposal likely to appear on the ballot in the November election. Massachusetts, which also borders Vermont, is likewise a target of reformers in 2016.

Legalization by legislation

“It’s looking more and more likely that Vermont will be the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislature instead of by a citizen ballot initiative,” said Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority. “This signals an important shift in the politics of marijuana.”

Vermont has managed to avoid most media lists of the likeliest states for legalization this year. That’s largely because of its small population, but also because no state has yet legalized through its elected lawmakers. In most places, legislatures have been too intransigent to pass reform, forcing activists to push ballot initiatives instead. But with Shumlin now on board, the prospects for reform in Vermont look very good.

The governor’s comments marked a turnaround from recent remarks in which he said he was “still struggling” with the issue. At the very least, his support means the plan will get a full hearing in the legislature and in statewide media.

Legislation is most effective method of reform

MarijuanaAdvocates and other observers say legislation may actually be the most effective way to enact reform, since it allows lawmakers to tweak the critical details before anything takes effect. Skeletal ballot initiatives can leave lawmakers flailing to fill in the blanks before retail cannabis goes on sale. The idea is already percolating in other states, including New York, Vermont’s other neighbor. It’s unclear whether any of those efforts will bear fruit in 2016, but Vermont may have the best odds.

“Ballot initiatives are a terrible way to make policy changes when the technical details matter,” said policy expert Mark Kleiman, who helped shape regulations on legal cannabis in Washington State. “But sometimes initiatives are the only way to go, because legislators simply won’t do what a majority of voters want.”

Shumlin said in January that he made up his mind on the issue because so many people – more than 10 percent of Vermonters use marijuana on a regular basis – are still forced to get their supply from illegal dealers on the criminal marketplace. Those dealers don’t always observe the rules of decent society, he noted.

“These illegal dealers couldn’t care less how young their customers are or what’s in the product they sell, or what illegal drugs you buy from their stash, much less whether they pay taxes on their earnings,” the governor said.

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