Will Vermont be the First to Legalize in 2016?

Will Vermont be the First to Legalize in 2016?

Vermont has long been at the top of prognosticators’ lists to legalize marijuana for full adult use in 2016. But time is already ticking down for legislative action. Senate Bill 241 is in hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.


That committee has until January 29 to refer it to the full Senate for consideration. Otherwise the bill dies. When asked if the committee could complete its work before the deadline, Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Judiciary Committee reportedly said, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”


If it passes, the law is likely to have a number of interesting features, including provisions that will permit cannabis clubs and home growing. The bill defers the availability of commercially-available edibles until further study but, presumably, if you can grow your own, you can cook your own. The law may not be perfect yet, but would be an improvement on the black market,


The larger question is what this portends for the future. Failure in famously cannafriendly Vermont could be crushing. Success, on the other hand, might set a new model. As goes Vermont, so goes the New England or the Northeast or more?


The View from the Land of Bernie


According to a poll conducted last September by the Castleton Polling Institute, 56 percent of Vermonters surveyed favored cannabis legalization, up two percentage points from the previous February. Nearly 16 percent reportedly smoked pot in the last year. Vermont eliminated the state’s criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana in 2013, and it has a functioning medical marijuana system.


But Vermont, like many Northeastern states has no provision for voter initiatives, so public sentiment plays only an indirect role in making law. Recreational legalization can only occur through action of the state legislature. To date, no state legislatures have taken this bold step.


Nonetheless, full legalization reportedly has the support of Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith, a Democrat who will likely run to succeed Shumlin in 2016. Former Vermont Attorney General Kimberly Cheney, a Republican, has also thrown his support behind efforts to end prohibition.


Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell does not support S. 241. Neither, according to their testimony before the Senate committee, do Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette, head of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, or Rutland County Sheriff Steve Benard. Various anti-legalization groups, including Smart Approaches to Marijuana Vermont, are mobilized and at work to block passage of the bill.


Vermont voters who want to weigh in on the issue are encouraged to contact members of the Senate Judiciary Committee at telephone numbers listed here or other state legislators, as listed here. A schedule of public meetings at which voters may express opinions can be found here.


A Deep Dive into Senate Bill 241


Back to the nitty-gritty, though, S. 241 seems to represent some new and evolved thinking on recreational use for those 21 and older. It is different model than seen before in Colorado or Washington. This is Adult Use 2.0.


The proposal would:


  • Allow for 86 storefronts;
  • Permit up to 42 cannabis lounges across the state which would also have limited commercial sales rights;
  • Prohibit edibles pending further study, but permit infused topicals;
  • Require state residency to operate a recreational establishment;
  • Limit purchases by state residents to one ounce at a time and non-residents to a quarter ounce at a time;
  • Permit the expungement of criminal history records relating to old cannabis convictions;
  • Permit municipalities to opt out of commercial cannabis development, but not the personal use and cultivation;
  • Limit commercial growers to 40,000 square-foot plots; and
  • Permit home plots of up to 100 square feet.


The language of the proposal was heavily influenced by a study produced at the behest of the legislature by the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative. The far-reaching goals of that study were to:


  • permit wider participation in the cannabis economy;
  • promote a greater variety of quality products and services; and
  • support post-prohibition jobs in areas as diverse as scientific research and renewable energy.


These are much larger goals than tax, regulate and destroy the black market. Not all of the study’s recommendations made it into the final bill, but some may be reintroduced as part of the regulatory process. The bill might also be amended after being reported out of committee.


The bill does not require landlords or employers to accommodate legal use. Renters might have the option of cannabis lounges, but employees who consume cannabis during non-work hours and without impairment on the job will remain vulnerable to employer drug testing policies. The bill also does not address parental rights protections, which may leave families at risk from a presumption of child neglect based on nothing more than legal adult consumption.


Senate Bill 241 is not perfect, but it’s good. These further improvements may have to wait for later amendment. But getting all the way to Adult Use 3.0 without going through earlier iterations  may be too much to ask of the first state legislature to tackle full legalization seriously.