Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) vetoed a marijuana legalization bill on Wednesday.
The legislation, passed by lawmakers earlier this month, would have legalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and allowed people to grow two mature plants and four seedlings at home, effective July 2018. The proposal would have also created a commission to study legalizing and taxing marijuana and issue recommendations to the legislature later this year.
In a press conference, the governor said he is returning the bill to lawmakers with suggestions for amendments which, he says, would provide “a way forward” for legalization in the state.
The legislature is expected to meet for a session to consider possible override votes on the budget and other matters next month. If lawmakers adopt Scott’s recommended changes then, he says he’d be willing to sign the bill into law.
In particular, the governor wants three main changes to the bill:
First, he wants tougher penalties for selling or giving marijuana to minors.
Second, he wants to “more aggressively penalize” driving under the influence or consuming in the presence of minors.
And third, he wants “broader membership” of the tax-and-regulate study commission, and he wants changes to its mandate. Specifically, he is pushing lawmakers to include representation from the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Health, the Department of Taxes and the substance abuse prevention and treatment community. The commission, the governor says, should determine driving impairment thresholds and testing mechanisms and should also provide an accounting of the fiscal costs of implementing legalization. He also wants the commission to have more time to make recommendations, instead of requiring that it draft legalization legislation to be ready for the new session starting in January.
(Scroll below for a document from the Scott’s office outlining his concerns in full.)
In a separate veto letter, the governor wrote, “If the Legislature agrees to make the changes I am seeking, we can move this discussion forward in a way that the public health and safety of our communities and our children continues to come first.”
Scott has repeatedly expressed ambivalence about the measure, S. 22, saying that while he’s “not philosophically opposed to legalization,” he has concerns about road safety and children’s access to edibles.
Under the state constitution, Scott had until midnight on Wednesday to sign or veto the bill. If he took no action, it would have gone into law without his signature, but he took that option off the table this week, saying “the best path I think is to say you’re either for or against it.”
Although the legislation passed the Senate by a veto-proof margin of 20 to 9, the House vote of 79 to 66 was much narrower.
A poll released in March found that 57 percent of the state’s voters support noncommercial legalization along the lines of S. 22’s provisions. The survey also showed that 54 percent favor a full taxed and regulated system of legal sales akin to the approach of separate legislation approved by the Senate this year and in 2016.
Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement that he is “disappointed” in the veto but “very encouraged by the governor’s offer to work with legislators to pass a legalization bill during the summer veto session.”
However, House Republican leader Donald Turner said in a statement that he wouldn’t support suspending the camber’s rules to consider a revised legalization bill on an expedited basis during the short session next month.
The legislature operates on a biennium, and Turner said he’d prefer that the idea be taken up again when lawmakers return in January, “allowing ample time for a comprehensive and thoughtful debate among various stakeholders.”
Advocates are now hoping that at least a few members of Turner’s caucus — some of whom supported the now-vetoed S. 22 — will break with him and vote to allow expedited consideration of a new proposal in June.
For their part, the Democratic leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees who helped steer the push for legalization seem open to considering Scott’s suggested changes.
In earlier legislative sessions under previous governors, Vermont enacted bills to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and to allow medical cannabis.
Scott’s veto comes at a time when other states in New England and elsewhere moving to modernize their marijuana laws. Voters in Maine and Massachusetts approved legalization measures in November. In Connecticut, the Senate president and House speaker included legalization language in a budget proposal they introduced last week. This month, a Delaware House committee approved a bill to tax and regulate marijuana. And lawmakers in Rhode Island are also considering proposals to end prohibition.
In total, eight states and Washington, D.C. currently have marijuana legalization laws.
See below for Scott’s suggested changes to the bill.