By Elizabeth Hewitt, VTDigger
Gov. Phil Scott became the first governor in the country to veto a bill that would legalize marijuana.
Scott announced Wednesday, May 24, he will send the bill, S.22, back to the Legislature.
However, the governor said he is “offering a path forward.” If lawmakers make certain changes to the legislation, he’d be willing to come around, he said.
Scott believes the Legislature could satisfactorily revise the bill as soon as next month, when lawmakers are expected to return for a veto session related to a showdown over the state budget.
The pot legislation, which passed both the Senate and House earlier this month, would remove all criminal and civil penalties for adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana as of July 2018. It would also allow people to grow up to two flowering and four immature plants at home.
The bill also would have created a commission charged with drafting a system of regulated sales.
It is the first time any legislature in the country passed a bill to legalize marijuana. Eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized pot, but by ballot measure.
The legislation drew statewide and national attention from advocates on both sides of the issue, even prompting the editorial board of The New York Times to pen an op-ed encouraging Scott to sign it.
Scott said Wednesday that he views legalization through a “libertarian lens” and generally believes adults should be able to make their own choices in private, as long as they don’t impact others.
However, he has reservations about legalization because of concerns over how the change in policy would affect drug-impaired driving rates, children and more. S.22, he said, currently does not address those concerns.
Scott said he will send the bill back to the Legislature with recommendations for changing it.
Scott will ask lawmakers to alter the framework of the commission that would be charged with studying a taxed and regulated model of marijuana sales. He asks that the panel include representatives from the departments of Public Safety, Health and Taxes. Currently, the Agency of Agriculture is the only branch of the administration included on the panel.
He also would like to postpone for a year the due date for the commission’s report to the Legislature. The bill calls for that report by November.
“This is a huge policy decision for us,” Scott said. “I think that we need to move a little bit slower.”
He will ask lawmakers to change a section of the bill that he says seems to weaken penalties for furnishing pot to those younger than 21. He will also ask for steeper penalties for using marijuana around kids or in vehicles.
Scott said he has never used marijuana himself, though he has friends who do. He said he feels it is worth considering moving forward on this issue this year, instead of waiting until next year.
Though Scott is open to taking further action on the bill in June, its future is now back in the hands of legislators.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a proponent of legalization, said he expected a veto and was “pleasantly surprised” that the governor expressed an interest in compromise.
Legalization is not strictly a party issue — Rutland Republican Rep. Tom Burditt was a sponsor of the initial House legalization bill. But with few exceptions, members of the Republican party voted against the bill earlier this month.