Vermont legalizes marijuana

A variety of failed policies threatens freedom for adults when it comes to smoking marijuana (Credit: Darrin Harris Frisby/Drug Policy Alliance)

Vermont became the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana, but it is the first to make cannabis legal through a legislative process rather than a ballot initiative.

In a statement Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who vetoed a similar bill in 2017, said that he signed the bill with “mixed emotions.”

“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,” said Scott. “In this context, it is very important to understand what H. 511 does and does not do.”

“While this legislation decriminalizes, for adults 21 and older, personal possession of no more than 1 ounce, and cultivation of two mature plants on their private property, marijuana remains a controlled substance in Vermont and its sale is prohibited,” said Scott. “Also, consumption of marijuana in public places is prohibited.  Consumption of marijuana by operators and passengers in a motor vehicle is prohibited. Schools, employers, municipalities and landlords are also empowered to adopt policies and ordinances further restricting the cultivation and use.”

The law eliminates Vermont’s civil penalty for possessing one ounce or less of marijuana and remove penalties for possession of up to two mature marijuana plants and up to four immature plants, beginning in July.

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

Fifty-seven percent of Vermont voters support allowing adults 21 and older to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana, according to a statewide survey of 755 registered voters there conducted in March by Public Policy Polling.

Only 39% are opposed. Nationwide support is similarly strong. An October 2017 Gallup poll found 64% of Americans support making marijuana legal.

Vermont is the ninth state to make marijuana legal for adults and the first to do so through its legislature. Eight other states have enacted laws legalizing and regulating marijuana for adult use, all through ballot initiatives.

In Washington, D.C., voters approved a ballot initiative making personal possession and home cultivation legal for adults 21 and older.

New Jersey, Vermont and 21 other states do not have a ballot initiative process, so their marijuana laws can only be modified by legislatures.

New Jersey’s new Democratic chief executive has promised to legalize marijuana, but it remains uncertain how fast Gov. Phil Murphy — or even if —  he can shepherd legalization through the Democrat-controlled legislature.

The effort’s top legislative backers have a proposal ready to go but already key Democratic lawmakers are urging caution, and Republicans look unlikely to help Murphy deliver on campaign promises.

Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari is sponsoring a bill that would permit people aged 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, 16 ounces of marijuana-infused products in solids, 72 ounces in liquid form and 7 grams of concentrate. It would prohibit home cultivation.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, is expected to introduce a similar legalization bill before the end of the month.

The legislation would establish a Division of Marijuana Enforcement, charged with regulating the industry. The legislation also would establish a sales tax on marijuana from 7 percent to 25 percent over five years to encourage early participation.

“I believe we can be thoughtful and methodical in a 100-day window,” said Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, a pro-legalization group.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era directive, known as the Cole memo, which directed federal prosecutors to prevent marijuana from getting into the hands of children and stop profits from flowing to drug cartels. Sessions’ policy shift will open the door for his U.S. attorneys to crack down.

Craig Carpenito, the interim U.S. attorney in New Jersey, announced his office will use “prosecutorial discretion in evaluating” opportunities to enforce federal marijuana laws, a statement that shed little light on whether the state will encounter complications if New Jersey moves forward on legalization.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, state Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, chairman of the Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, are among the leading Democrats who would vote against legalizing marijuana.

On November 6, 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states – and first two places in the world – to legalize marijuana for adult use. Two years later Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. followed suit. In 2016 voters in four additional states – California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada – also approved ballot measures legalizing marijuana.

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