As marijuana prohibition crumbles in the United States, the legalization movement's success has so far been limited to Western states, prompting marijuana policy reform advocates to build on their momentum in other regions across the country. In particular, a victory in the heavily populated—and largely liberal—Northeast would open up a new frontier for the movement, and advocates are now eyeing Vermont—whose legislature has been historically progressive when it comes to reform marijuana laws—as its best bet in the region.
Today, on the eve of the start of Vermont's 2015 legislative session, activists working to legalize marijuana in the state announced the launch of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, an umbrella group spearheaded by the Marijuana Policy Project and includes the Vermont ACLU, the Vermont Cancer Survivors Network, and the state's Progressive and Libertarian parties, among others. In a press conference at the Vermont State House Tuesday morning, representatives from the coalition announced their plans to support legislation this year that would legalize recreational marijuana in the state.
State Senator David Zuckerman, a Progressive, is expected to introduce the bill in this year's legislative session, perhaps within the next couple of weeks. If the legislation passes, Vermont would become the first state in the US to pass marijuana legalization through the legislature, rather than by ballot initiative. Matt Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the state is "well-poised" to break this new ground, in part because the state legislature already voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2004 (and expanded that policy last year), and passed a bill decriminalizing marijuana in 2013. On top of that, a survey from the Castleton Polling Institute released last spring found that 57 percent of Vermonters support a policy change allowing for a legal, regulated market for marijuana.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Simon argued that legalization would allow people to buy weed from licensed sellers, creating a safer market as well as jobs and tax revenue. "Simply put, marijuana prohibition has proven to be a failure in the same way alcohol prohibition proved to be a failure in the 1920s and 30s," he said.
Speakers at the press conference tried to counter concerns about the legislation, in particular the argument that legalizing and regulating marijuana would encourage young users, noting that states that have loosened marijuana laws have not seen an uptick in underage users, and that regulation would force buyers to show ID. They also said that marijuana is not a gateway drug in the sense that it causes the brain to seek out harder drugs, but because of marijuana's place in the black market, where it sold by dealers who, if selling other illegal substances, have the financial incentive to encourage additional drug use.
"What criminalizing marijuana has succeeded in doing is getting more people arrested, sent to jail, and burdened with criminal record that limit opportunity for rest of their lives," Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, said.
While the Vermont legislature's past openness to marijuana policy reform may be a good sign for legalization advocates, the coalition will still have to jump several hurdles before any legislation passes. Project SAM, a group that opposes marijuana legalization, has opened up a Vermont chapter to oppose any reform efforts in the state. A legalization bill introduced by Zuckerman last year failed, and convincing Vermont lawmakers to become the first in the country to legalize marijuana through the legislature is a steep hill to climb, in part because marijuana regulation is probably not the hill many Vermont legislators want to die on.
"It's tough to handicap whether the Senate has the votes this year," state Senator Tim Ashe, a Progressive, told Vermont's WCAX station last month. He added that other issues, like education finance reform and closing the state's $100 million budget gap, will be top priorities for the legislature this year.
Several Vermont lawmakers have also openly expressed opposition to legalization. The state House Minority Leader, Republican Don Turner told WCAX that "90 percent" of his caucus will be opposed to Zuckerman's marijuana legislation. "We'll do everything we can to raise the points of contention," Turner said. Similarly, Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning toldVPR, Vermont's NPR affiliate, that he doesn't think marijuana reform will be a major priority for lawmakers this year, adding, "I think people are still waiting to see how it works with the decriminalization, and also with Washington and Colorado, trying to figure out what they've done." Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith, too, has expressed opposition to the legislation, and could prevent the bill from going to the floor for a vote.
Some of the debate will likely revolve around the results of a RAND Corporation study commissioned by state lawmakers to examine the potential tax revenue of a legalized market. The report, which is due out next week, will provide crucial insight—and potential talking points—to legislators as they determine whether to support legalization. But it may not quell concerns that there will not be enough time in the busy legislative session for lawmakers to analyze all of the pros and cons of legalization.
But Simon sees a couple of silver linings, pointing out that while Smith, the House Speaker, blocked a marijuana decriminalization bill from a vote in 2012, he overcame his reservations and allowed a vote on similar legislation the following year. That law passed despite opposition from Project SAM, although Simon acknowledged that the group is "working harder this time around."
"They are organizing and trying to build own coalition, so I look forward to the debate," he said, "but I feel good about what's to come."
And some lawmakers have come out in support of marijuana reform. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, has said he is " open" to legalization, and will be looking at the results in Colorado and Washington to see whether the reforms there have been effective. Vermont's Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn has also said he supports taking "a hard look" at legalization, and Democratic Attorney General William Sorrell, who testified in favor of decriminalization in 2013, told MPP he would support legalization.
Should the legislature pull off marijuana legalization either this year or the next, Vermont would send an encouraging message to reformers in the region. "If Vermont legislators seize this opportunity to pass a marijuana regulation bill in 2015, that would set a strong example for legislators in other states. Public support is strong across the region, and legislators seem to be becoming more comfortable with the issue with each passing day," Simon said, "Ballot initiatives are planned for Massachusetts and Maine in 2016, and the New Hampshire House approved a marijuana regulation bill in January 2014, so the prospects appear to be very bright for the issue in New England."
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