Vermont's People-Powered Weed Legalization Win Can Happen in Your State Too
How a grassroots movement helped the Green Mountain State live up to its name.
Image via Impact Staff
Vermont embraced its greenness last week after becoming the first in the union to legalize recreational weed through the state legislature (as opposed to the courts or a ballot measure). It joins nine other states plus the District of Columbia in moving towards legalization, though it won't be selling weed or opening up any dispensaries so this latest move is far from entering the smoke cloud of the unknown. But achieving legalization through the legislative process is a national first and has major implications for other state's efforts, and is a heavy wink to federal drug policy led by narc supreme Jeff Sessions.
While the home state of Phish, Half-Baked ice cream, Goddard College, Heady Topper beer, dank views and the only state capital without a McDonald’s seems like a natural fit for a legal and vibrant cannabis culture, the road to legalization has been far from easy. The effort was torpedoed at the end of last year’s legislative session by first-time Republican Governor Phil Scott who bucked the rest of the rookie legislative leadership that supported legalization including Lt. Governor Dave Zuckerman, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, and Senate pro tem Tim Ashe, who along with Scott all came into their leadership positions last year. Scott used his executive privilege to veto a widely supported legalization bill and instead created a study commission to examine potential social, health and business impact.
In addition to savvy state house operators, the driving force of these efforts have been concerned private citizens who actively got involved in the direction their little slice of a state was going, and felt it necessary to organize themselves and neighbors towards political action.
Scott appears to be becoming more 420-friendly in the new year and has indicated his intention to sign into law this year’s weed bill that cleared both the House and Senate by comfortable margins and now sits on his desk. Prominent business leaders and social justice advocates in the state have been on the green train for years, often citing the positive financial benefit legalization has been for states like Colorado which brought in over a half billion dollars since January of 2014, with lots of the money being reinvested into social programs.
Being a trailblazer through the legislative process is natural territory for the little state that could. Vermont was the first to legalize marriage equality through a nail-bitter veto vote of then-governor Jim Douglas back in 2009, led by current state Supreme Court justice Beth Robinson and then state senator Peter Shumlin. And in 2014 it became the first state to require GMO labeling on food, an effort largely led by then state senator and now current Lt. Governor, professional farmer and proud pony-tail-rocker Dave Zuckerman. In addition to savvy state house operators, the driving force of these efforts has been concerned private citizens who actively got involved in the direction their little slice of a state was going, and felt it necessary to organize themselves and neighbors towards political action.
This has certainly been the case with the ongoing weed legalization effort, and so I caught up with 30-year-old Vermont resident and founder of pro-weed advocacy group Heady Vermont Eli Harrington. I reached Eli by phone the day the bill passed the Senate to talk about the grassroots effort behind the bill's movement.
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VICE Impact: This vote didn’t happen overnight and legalization was stopped last year. Why is 2018 different and what was the lead up to this?
Eli Harrington: Starting in the ‘80s, there was actually one voted on. So, this is not new and a lot has changed in the country. Socially, this is a much more mainstream issue now. I think it's important to acknowledge that there have been a lot of efforts. And in Vermont, we were the ninth state to legalize medical marijuana-- that was back in 2004. That was a very conservative bill that was passed, and there had been slight adjustments to it.
2016 is when we saw sort of a breakthrough. 2015, there was some legislation that had been put out, and then 2016 there was a pretty concerted effort. The Democratic governor at the time Peter Shunlin was in favor, and there was a really ambitious bill called S241 which would not only legalize, but set up a pretty comprehensive taxed and regulated system. Despite the governor's support, and despite the work of the Senate, that bill did not go far in the House at all. Those two distinct bodies — the Senate is much smaller, and has been more in favor of tax/regulate and more in favor of the medical.
"...instead of trying to do tax and regulate and medical at the same time, advocates made the decision to really start to focus on legalization, and detach that from the question of tax and regulate."
The House has, until about two years ago, not done a ton of serious work on this issue, at least as a larger body. So, after S241 was defeated very soundly, we had an election, and instead of trying to do tax and regulate and medical at the same time, advocates made the decision to really start to focus on legalization, and detach that from the question of tax and regulate.
And last year we saw that there were tax and regulate and legalization bills that were in the House — the tax & regulation bill was called 167, the legalization bill was called 170. The legalization, and again we're talking about a very conservative amount here: one ounce personal possession, and two mature and four immature plants, the harvest from those plants does not count towards your possession, so you can theoretically possess more than one ounce but just not more than that on your person.
So looking back to last year, it was a lot of grassroots advocacy, a ton of outreach. It was also unprecedented as far as the state politics, in that we had new leadership in the Senate, new leadership in the House, and a new governor. In 2017 there was a lot of political jockeying within the state, and this issue was one that certainly became a part of that.
So tell us about the entity that is Heady Vermont — and how this recent move by the Vermont legislature was the result of a people-powered movement?
We mostly started off doing just straight news coverage, and realized that a lot of the things that were being quoted were not true. A lot of the arguments that were being made were not based in fact, and the statistics being used were coming from skewed sources. There was a big disconnect. As a media publication, we were answering questions about "how", and then we ended up answering questions about "why" — why are the representatives saying this, how are they getting this information, why are they only listening to this testimony and not other resources?
We kind of fell into a position where we felt like we had to use our outlet, and out publishing presence, not only to inform people, but to engage them. Because when everyone sees the news and says "how can I get involved? How can I get involved and how can I support this cause?" So, really it came from the response of what we're writing from just straight coverage.
"A lot of the arguments that were being made were not based in fact, and the statistics being used were coming from skewed sources. There was a big disconnect."
Our readership are real people, and they're the kind of people that care the most, and have the most interest in this plant, and its implications in Vermont. So, for us it wasn't a big step to say, "Here's how you get involved," and to, while we're reporting what's going on in that committee room, to say, "This is what the representative from Colchester said today, and if you live in Colchester, you should give this person a call because they are on the fence.”
For us, it wasn't about influencing what people are going to think. Most people who read our outlet are strongly in-support because they have experience in real life, and they have chosen to educate themselves and they want to make their voice heard. It wasn't a question of influencing their politics, it was about giving them the tools to make their voices heard and be effective. In Vermont, there's no referendum so we needed to be able to activate people at specific points, throughout the process, as the bill was in committee, when the committee was going to move to another committee, and when it was time for full legalization.
As Vermont was the first state to do this through the legislative process, what tactics were most effective and could be replicated in other states?
The most important thing is humanizing the issue. And for us, that meant ourselves individually being representatives of the industry and advocates publicly to the mainstream media. I started doing something last year, a livestream on Monday nights, and this was a direct response to people saying, "How should I get involved? etc." And I said, “Okay, fuck this, I'll show you! We'll go on FB live, and on Monday night, the day before our session starts, I'll put up a list of the towns where we need representatives to call. I'll call every one of them — with my headphones in so you can't hear the representative but you can hear me, and I'll literally give you the script, and not only that, but sort of show you that: here are some responses that you might get, and that this is why you need to call.”
You know, these people aren't scary, they're regular people. That general idea, that livestream, that social media. If there's a representative who has a Twitter handle, they don't have a staffer who's managing it, they are reading those mentions. A lot of it is giving people information, as far as other tools that we use, giving people information so that they can make comments on social media in response.
In terms of weed being an issue that's mobilizing people, is it resonating across demographics? Vermont is a pretty homogenous place, so do you see legalization as an issue with wide appeal across age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds?
I think it does, because we see that for people under the age of 40 it's not even a question., As far as, "Do you support this or do you not support this?" They all do because they didn't grow up on Reefer Madness . So it's really more about what are the channels that we're building for them to have their voice heard. Maybe today it's about marijuana legalization, maybe tomorrow it's about the minimum wage, maybe the day after that it's about a tax credit, or a consumer safety issue. So, it is really important as an issue because it's engaging a lot of people in the process.
"Maybe today it's about marijuana legalization, maybe tomorrow it's about the minimum wage, maybe the day after that it's about a tax credit, or a consumer safety issue."
It’s a gateway to political engagement. That's one of the most fulfilling parts of this, is that so many people who don't understand how laws move through their state legislature, or how to get involved, or how to maximize that: Here's a phone number you can call, and as long as you're civil, you can have some actual influence as an individual. As far as empowering people, and showing them here's an issue that has some taboo around it, it's a lot less scary to call about supporting minimum wage or water cleanup or a funding bill.
Through the process, you get other people who emerge as leaders, whether they're in party committees, whether they're within other agencies, or whether they're representatives who are using this issue to differentiate themselves. So, both in the citizenry and in the legislature it's a chance for leadership.
In your experience, what's mobilizing people to action? Out to events and getting them to call their legislator — what is that driving motivating factor as you see it for meaningful political action?
Part of it is the camaraderie. Showing people that here are people that have, at least, this common belief with you. Not all of our events are advocacy -- most of them are not -- but if you come to one of our hemp events, or if you come to a panel discussion, or if you come to our ski day, you're going to be surrounded by like-minded individuals, and it's easier to pick up that phone and make that call if you know that you have a community that has your back.
As you know, Vermont was also the first state to legalize equal marriage through the legislature. What similarities do you see between that effort and what is happening right now with the weed bill?
To put the consequences on the same level would be disingenuous. As the son of gay parents, I think it's important to respect the differences there. I will say what the lieutenant governor said to me, and people in the State and House, was that the similar process is humanization, whether it's because you're coming out because you're somebody who is gay, and saying, "Hey, I'm not all of these bad things that you talk about," or if you're somebody who is a responsible consumer of marijuana, or you know somebody who is.
Ultimately those are the most powerful voices, when it's individuals coming out and saying, "Here's my story, and what you're describing does not match with the reality on the ground."
What do you say to people that what their state to pursue legalization? What's the first thing that they can do right now?
Start building a coalition and a community out loud. Find other allies and raise the flag. Say, "This is something that I support."
It could be something as simple as a Change.org petition that you post on Facebook, and everybody who signs up has a meeting at a coffeehouse or a bar, and then you find an advocacy group in your capital that's working on it, or a national advocacy group. But it's really starting that process of getting into a post-prohibition mindset, and not being afraid of the stigma, because the public opinion is behind this firmly. Especially when you think of, generationally, people that are in charge now and people that will be in charge in the future. The millennials are the biggest age group and we firmly support this.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.