On Wednesday, Vermont lawmakers approved a measure to legalize recreational use of marijuana, which if not vetoed by Republican Governor Phil Scott, would make the state the ninth to legalize the plant, and the first to do so by legislation, rather than ballot initiative.
The U.S. state’s House of Representatives approved the measure,which was attached to a bill increasing penalties for the possession and sale of the opioid drug fentanyl, by a 79-66 vote. The state’s Senate passed the measure, which would take effect in July 2018.
The new measure would allow adults aged 21 and over to use marijuana.
Governor Scott has not yet said if he will veto the measure, stating: “I’ll take a look at the bill, but I’ve been pretty clear that I’d like to see some improvements to the bill to make sure we have a structure in place that provides safety to Vermonters.”
His spokeswoman, Rebecca Kelley, told Vermont Public Radio on Tuesday that he was still reviewing the bill and had some concerns about people driving while under the influence and wants to develop a test for those suspected of doing so.
If the governor signs off on the bill, it would allow those 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. Those of legal age would be permitted to grow two mature plants on their own property. The bill would not legalize sale, or provide tax revenue for the state.
The bill cited its neighboring states’ decisions to legalize recreational marijuana, as a factor in Vermont’s decision to follow suit:
In November 2016, voters in Massachusetts and Maine approved possession and cultivation of marijuana for personal use by adults 21 years of age or older. In July 2018, both states will begin to allow retail sales of marijuana and marijuana-infused products through licensed stores. Canada is expected to act favorably on legislation legalizing marijuana possession and cultivation for adults 18 years of age or older, and federal administration officials have cited the Summer of 2018 as the date on which licensed retail stores will begin selling marijuana and marijuana-infused products to the public.
By adopting a comprehensive regulatory structure for legalizing and licensing the marijuana market, Vermont can revise drug laws that have a disparate impact on racial minorities, better control the safety and quality of marijuana being consumed by Vermonters, and use revenues to support substance abuse prevention and education and enforcement of impaired driving laws.
The S22 bill also cited a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, entitled “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” which identified Vermont as 15th in the country, and first in New England, when comparing discrepancies in citation and arrest rates for marijuana possession. The report stated that African-Americans in Vermont were 4.36 times more likely to be cited or arrested for marijuana possession than whites, higher than the national average of African-Americans being 3.73 more likely than whites to be cited or arrested for marijuana possession.
Although Vermont later decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, a 2016 report by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, “Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States,” found that Vermont had the third-highest racial disparity in drug possession arrest rates in the country, despite nearly identical use rates.
In the report, “Driving While Black or Brown in Vermont,” University of Vermont researchers, examining 2015 data from 29 police agencies covering 78 percent of Vermont’s population, found significant disparities in how often African-Americans and Hispanics are stopped, searched and arrested, as compared to whites and Asians. According to the report, African-American drivers are four times more likely than white drivers to be searched by Vermont police, even though they are less likely to be found with illegal items.
“As part of efforts to eliminate implicit bias in Vermont’s criminal justice system, policymakers must reexamine the State’s drug laws, beginning with its policy on marijuana,” the bill continued.
According to a 2014 study commissioned by the administration, and conducted by the RAND Corporation, marijuana is commonly used in Vermont, with an estimated 80,000 residents having used marijuana in the last month.
For over 75 years, Vermont has debated the issue of marijuana regulation, and amended its marijuana laws numerous times, in an effort to protect public health and safety. Criminal penalties for possession rose in the 1940s and 50s to include harsh mandatory minimums, dropped in the 1960s and 70s, rose again in the 1980s and 90s, and dropped again in the 2000s. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that no evidence supports the claim that criminalization reduces marijuana use.
It is the intent of the General Assembly to eliminate all civil penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, and a small number of marijuana plants, for a person who is 21 years of age or older, while retaining the current criminal penalties for possession of larger amounts of marijuana, and criminal penalties for unauthorized dispensing or sale of marijuana. This act also retains the current civil and criminal penalties for possession of marijuana by a person under 21 years of age, which are the same as possession of alcohol by a person under 21 years of age.
“Vermont lawmakers made history today,” said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project advocacy group. “It’s time for Vermont to move forward with a more sensible marijuana policy.”
“Instead of judging and punishing people for the way that they deal with pain, or even seek pleasure, let’s empower people to make healthier choices, and to work toward wellness and recovery,” said State Representative Brian Cina.
Michael Crossman, a native resident of Vermont said, “The previous time [a legalization bill] went in front of the House in Vermont, it didn’t pass, so I am psyched that it did today. I hope Gov. Scott approves it.”
He further mused, “New Hampshire’s pretty open-minded. I am surprised they haven’t legalized yet. I hope they will soon.”
Simon and Crossman’s sentiments were echoed by attorney David Holland, Esq., the executive and lLegal director of Empire State National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML): “Today’s vote is historic because, for the first time, lawmakers, absent a voter referendum and public mandate, have taken positive action to legalize marijuana. This is a brave step for Vermont, and a breakthrough event for states like New York, which must rely on their elected leaders to deal with the issue of legalization, because we do not have the ability to bring change by voter referendum. I hope this emboldens our political leaders to delay no longer, and to have faith that the vast majority of New Yorkers wants legalization today.”
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