Governor's Veto Stalls Vermont Legislation to Legalize Marijuana

Voters are far more willing to legalize cannabis than the representatives they elect.
Governor's Veto Stalls Vermont Legislation to Legalize Marijuana
Image credit: Martin Bernetti | Getty Images

Vermont’s movement to become the first state to consider legalizing recreational marijuana without a vote of the people got derailed this week when Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the measure.

Scott rejected a bill that allowed for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The measure also created a commission to study how to set up a regulated adult-use marijuana market in the state, with recommendations on how it might work delivered by November.

It did not create a regulated adult-use marijuana market, such as voter-passed measures did in eight states, including Colorado, Washington and California (a distinction lost in many media reports). Scott, a Republican, rejected it, anyway. However, he also made it clear he’s not opposed to legalization and left the door open to compromise.

The only roadblock to completing a deal will likely be members of his own party.

Related: Congressional Cannabis Caucus Unites to Protect Marijuana Industry

Not philosophically opposed.

The other eight states to legalize recreational marijuana all did so through a popular vote by the people. Vermont lawmakers wanted to make possession legal through legislation, and also set up a commission that could eventually recommend how the state could create, regulate and tax an adult-use marijuana market.

Other states have watched closely how things turn out in Vermont. Some lawmakers in Illinois, for example, are considering introducing similar legislation. Their issue mirrors that in other states – they want the tax money marijuana brings in to help balance the state budget.

For Scott, marijuana legalization presents a bit of a legal quagmire. A Republican serving his first year in office, Scott has politicians in his party vehemently opposed to legalized, adult-use marijuana.

However, the bill, passed in the Legislature by a narrow margin, had approval of 57 percent of the state’s voters, according to this survey from March.

Scott told reporters after his veto of the bill that he is “not philosophically opposed to eliminating the prohibition on marijuana,” he just wants some changes.

Related: San Diego Company Bids to Become First Marijuana Business on NYSE

Few changes needed.

Actually, the changes Scott wants are relatively minor, leading Vermont newspaper the Burlington Free Press to report there might be a deal by summer.

Most of Scott’s issues are about kids and time. He wants:

  • Longer sentences for those who use marijuana in front of children or offer it to children, as well as more severe penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana
  • More time for the state to study the regulatory structure needed to have a legal marijuana market, perhaps pushing it back to 2019 or beyond

The Vermont Legislature goes back into session in late June and there could be a compromise worked out there. State Sen. Dick Sears, a Democrat, told the Free-Press its “not a slam dunk but it’s possible.”

But while Scott has proposed a compromise, his own party may keep it from happening. Rep. Don Turner, a Republican, said the majority of Republicans lawmakers remain opposed to legalization and will not likely change their minds.

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