By Angelo S. Lynn
While Gov. Phil Scott’s coup to have the state negotiate teachers’ health care benefits has been the unforeseen show-stopper of this legislative session, that a bill moving toward legalizing marijuana made it to the governor’s desk is one of the session’s biggest surprises.
Gov. Scott made it clear early in the session that he was in no hurry to consider legalizing marijuana this session. He was adamant about being able to effectively monitor the “sobriety” of drivers who were under marijuana’s influence and said the state would be better off to wait until such monitoring techniques were available, while also taking advantage of what early adopter states had learned from legalizing the drug. He said if a bill to legalize marijuana and create a commercial marketplace landed on his desk, he would likely veto it.
To many political observers, it seemed the issue was dead this session.
But credit those in support of legalization; they took a very cautious and measured approach and created a two-step bill that serves the state well.
The bill essentially has two parts: it legalizes the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and up to two mature cannabis plants for those 21 or older starting in July 2018; and it establishes a marijuana regulatory commission to draft a bill by Nov. 1, 2017, that “establishes a comprehensive regulatory and revenue system for an adult-use marijuana market that, when compared to the current illegal marijuana market, increases public safety and reduces harm to public health.”
That’s brilliant for three reasons:
First, it builds on the 2013 legislation that decriminalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and made it a civil violation. This action makes possession of up to one ounce legal, along with a couple of plants, which is enough to grow one’s own and not run afoul of the law. Even Gov. Scott said he appreciates the libertarian notion of keeping the government out of people’s lives if what they’re doing isn’t causing any harm to others.
Second, it challenges lawmakers to create a bill that addresses the biggest drawbacks to legalization: public safety and public health. If the bill can address those two issues in a way that truly makes it better than what we currently have, what’s not to like? Who could argue with passage if the proposal makes the public safer and healthier?
Third, the proof will be in the pudding. If the bill doesn’t meet the above test, legislators will have the option to defeat the bill or send the proposal back for another draft until they get it right. And if it passes both Houses of the Legislature and the governor still doesn’t buy it, he can veto.
It is, in short, a bill with very little downside.
On the plus side, this bill allows the state to move forward on an issue that, otherwise, is very tempting to stick one’s head in the sand and just kick the can down the road to no one’s benefit, while perpetuating harm and missing out on potential opportunities.
The fact is our society has determined (after 50-plus years of cultural warfare) that marijuana is more like alcohol than hard drugs. And like alcohol during the days of Prohibition, making possession a crime just drives it underground and creates a black market driven by thugs and organized crime. Even for those who still think a get-tough approach is best, that ability is being undercut by neighboring states (Massachusetts and Maine most recently, as well as Canada) that have moved to legalize the drug and capture the tax benefits. With those developments undermining state law enforcement efforts, trying to keep Vermont in a marijuana-free bubble will be an increasingly expensive battle we are bound to lose.
The bill’s authors understood that, but what they also understood was what not to do in this bill: delve into the weeds of creating a commercial marketplace that put the focus on tax revenues. That will come next, but what’s most important first is ensuring the law makes our communities safer and healthier. Even the state’s law enforcement community can embrace that goal, and it is the primary reason the governor can feel comfortable adding his signature to this thoughtful bill.