The Vermont Legislature is moving rapidly to legalize marijuana, with the state House of Representatives set to vote on the issue soon.
A legalization bill has already passed the state Senate, and Gov. Pete Shumlin has promised to sign it if it reaches his desk. That means a “yes” vote by the House would effectively legalize cannabis statewide.
If it happens, it would mark the first time a state has legalized by way of its legislature instead of a public referendum. Advocates and experts say that could speed up the course of legalization across the United States.
The bill passed the Senate in February and could come up for a vote in the House by the end of March. The proposed law would make it legal to buy, possess, and use small amounts of cannabis for recreation.
Home cultivation would be prohibited
But it wouldn’t be all peaches and sunshine for cannabis users. The law would explicitly prohibit home grows and edibles. No other state with legal pot has gone that far, though Washington bans home cultivation. That suggests legislative legalization could lead to much more stringent laws barring stoners from using almost anything other than regular bud.
It’s not yet clear whether the proposal will pass the House. But Shumlin and most Vermont lawmakers are liberal Democrats, so it stands a fairly good chance. Still, lawmakers must act by the time the current legislative session ends in May, and they may not get there fast enough.
In addition to making possession legal, the proposed law would create regulations for an industry that would make, process, and sell cannabis. Other provisions include a 25 percent sales tax.
Thoughtful and measured approach
“It makes for a much more thoughtful and measured approach,” said State Sen. Jeanette White. “We got to work out the details, we got to ask the questions first and put the whole infrastructure in place before it happens.”
If the House passes the bill, Vermont would become the fifth state to legalize marijuana for personal use. Washington, Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia have all legalized by way of public initiative.
California, Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts, Maine, and other states could vote to do the same in November. Legalization petitions have been filed this year in 16 states, though none has moved as far as Vermont.
Proponents of the bill say it would offer a teaching moment to the rest of the country.
Laying out the legislative path
“It sends an important message that legislatures don’t have to be afraid of this, it’s not a third rail anymore,” said Jeff Laughlin, 37, a software programmer from Barre.
Support for legalization is strong, though not as strong as it is in Western states such as California. There, polls show support hovering around 60 percent, while a recent survey in Vermont pegged it at 55 percent.
The state is already one of the most appealing for stoners. One in eight people smoke weed for personal use, even though it’s illegal. And young people smoke it in even greater numbers: one in three.
“If it’s one in eight, to me that tells me that we need to change, that society for the most part is accepting it,” said Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark. “If 12 or 13 percent of the population is not being open with law enforcement when we’re out trying to investigate serious crimes, then that is holding us back from working with our communities.”