Vermont On The Precipice Of Legalizing Marijuana Sales

Vermont On The Precipice Of Legalizing Marijuana Sales

Marijuana may be legal in Vermont, but there are no dispensaries slinging pre-rolls and dab pens because a retail framework has not yet been established.

The Legal Status of Marijuana in Vermont

In January of 2018, Vermont made cannabis history by becoming the first state in the union to legalize marijuana through an act of lawmakers, instead of through a ballot initiative. At that point, they were the ninth state to end prohibition. The bill allowed for residents of the Green Mountain State above the age of 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use, and to cultivate no more than two cannabis plants.

The bill, however, did not make permissible the sale of marijuana. So while Vermonters won’t find themselves in trouble with the law for simply having cannabis in their possession, the process of actually acquiring it has not changed all that much since becoming legal.

The History of S. 54

Almost exactly one year after legalizing marijuana, the Vermont State Senate produced another bill—one that would allow Vermont to create a taxable cannabis market akin to what we see in states like Washington and Colorado. That piece of legislation, titled S. 54, was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate with a veto-proof majority of 23 to 5. However, that was just the beginning.

Fast forward another year—S. 54 made its way to the House, where it was subject to amendments. Most of which were related to tax structure, and included opening an education fund where tax revenue from cannabis sales would be directly deposited. This move was seen as an appeal to Republican Governor Phil Scott, who despite originally opposing legalizing marijuana sales, implied he might come around on the issue if the tax revenue could be used to fund his after school proposal.

The bill officially cleared the house in February of this year. 

Where is S. 54 Now?

Currently, two versions of S. 54 exist—the original Senate bill, and the House’s iteration with the added amendments. Vermont legislators appointed members to a bicameral conference committee to merge the two versions into one back in March, but much to the chagrin of marijuana advocates, the committee has not yet been authorized to meet. In May, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) told Marijuana Moment that S. 54 would have to take a back seat to the pandemic. “Our attention, I believe rightly, has been entirely on the COVID crisis and making sure that we get Vermonters through this very intense desperate period,” said Johnson.

However, on Wednesday, August 5 Johnson’s chief of staff told Marijuana Moment in an email that “S.54 is currently in a committee of conference and we expect that committee to meet during the August/September legislative session. That’s consistent with what the leader said during a June telephone town hall, where she said they were ‘aiming to get it passed in August.’”

The Future of S. 54

While S. 54 is only a few weeks away from reaching the seemingly supportive bicameral committee that will be responsible for deciding it’s fate, there’s still one more hurdle to clear—and it’s a big one.

After the committee reconciles the bill’s two versions into one, and both chambers approve it, that final piece of legislation will land on Governor Phil Scott’s desk. Once there, Scott will have the option to either sign it into law, or veto it. Scott has historically been opposed to legalization, but has also indicated that he may be open to S. 54 depending on where the tax revenue was spent. Since taking office, Governor Scott has vetoed both a family leave plan, and a minimum wage increase.

Vermont Governor Backs Statewide Legalization of Cannabis

Vermont Governor Backs Statewide Legalization of Cannabis

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) made clear in his annual State of the State speech that he intends to pursue full legalization of cannabis throughout the state, offering an outline for a plan that is historic in its ambition.

Shumlin stressed the importance of taking the distribution of cannabis outside of the hands of black-market dealers.

“The outdated War on Drugs has…failed, and there is no greater example than our nation’s marijuana laws,”

said Shumlin in the address. “But the black market of drug dealers selling marijuana for recreational use is alive and well, serving over 80,000 Vermonters who reported using marijuana last year. 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.”

Shumlin listed five requirements that would need to be met under any legalization framework:

  • First, a legal market must keep marijuana and other drugs out of the hands of underage kids. The current system doesn’t. Our new system must.
  • Second, the tax imposed must be low enough to wipe out the black market and get rid of the illegal drug dealers.
  • Third, revenue from legalization must be used to expand addiction prevention programs.
  • Fourth, we must strengthen law enforcement’s capacity to improve our response to impaired drivers under the influence of Marijuana who are already on Vermont’s roads.
  • Fifth, take a hard lesson learned from other states and ban the sale of edibles until other states figure out how to do it right.

Gov. Shumlin’s approach is unique because, instead of making marijuana legal through a ballot measure voted upon by Vermont citizens, he is instead seeking a legislative solution.

“We have a history of tackling difficult issues with respect and care, the Vermont way,” Shumlin continued in his speech.

“I believe we have the capacity to take this next step and get marijuana legalization done right.”

The move to move a measure through the state legislature has already won plaudits among experts in the field.

“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, director of Project Oversight and Communications for Marijuana Majority. “This signals an important shift in the politics of marijuana.”

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