The timing of the Vermont House decision to pass a bill that would make marijuana legal for adults was just a little awkward.
Just before the bill was voted on last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions publicly rescinded the Cole Memorandum, a set of guidelines put forth by the Department of Justice in 2013. They instructed federal prosecutors in states that legalized marijuana not to focus federal resources on people complying with their state laws.
That was reason enough to put off a vote in the Vermont House, some argued, but in the end it passed by a tally of 81-63. Following Wednesday’s passage in the Senate, the bill heads to Gov. Phil Scott who is expected to sign it into law.
The bill would eliminate the civil penalty for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, two mature plants or four immature plants starting in July.
A task force appointed by Scott will issue a report by Dec, 15, on how to tax and regulate marijuana sales and commercial cultivation. The bill would make Vermont the ninth state to legalize marijuana for adults, and the first to legalize it through legislation.
“ This is a big part of what we’ve been asking for for a long time,” said Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s best for it to have a regulated market.”
For Shayne Lynn, executive director of the Champlain Valley Dispensary, legalization is a natural step for the Green Mountain State.
“Vermont’s moving forward with what has been talked about for years,” he said. “I believe that this is one more step toward the tax-and-regulate program.”
Lynn added, “The prohibition on cannabis over the decades hasn’t worked, and the Department of Justice has plenty of other safety concerns and issues. There are more prevalent drugs in our society. These are steps toward that prohibition model being changed. “
Vermont was the second state to pass the Medical Cannabis Law legislatively in 2004 when Gov. Jim Douglas allowed the bill to become law without his signature.
“At first it was very limited to patients with multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS, and it’s still highly controversial,” Simon said. “In 2011, dispensaries occurred and decriminalization happened in 2013. This new bill establishes a possession limit.”
According to Americans for Safe Access, residents of Vermont are eligible for medical marijuana if they are diagnosed with cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, any chronic or debilitating disease that produces cachexia or wasting syndrome, chronic pain, severe nausea or seizures.
Regulation is the way to create a legal market, Simon said.
“Marijuana is a tens of billions of dollars source of economic activity,” he said. “Billions of dollars have been shifted from drug cartels into a legal marketplace with legalization and decriminalization. If it’s not regulated, it’s going to continue to be handled completely by criminals. Nobody thinks cartels are bringing marijuana into Colorado and Washington.”
Lynn said it was “unfortunate” that Sessions rescinded the federal guidelines covering states where marijuana had been legalized.
“We saw the Cole Memorandum as clear guidelines in terms of how we’re supposed to operate,” he said. “We’ll continue to do that, and remain compliant with state laws. Fingers are crossed that nothing changes.”
Retail marijuana stores have a lot of questions right now, Simon said, and they will seek assurances that they won’t be undermined. But the Vermont Legislature has made its decision clear despite the U.S. attorney general’s statement, he said.
“ I don’t think that announcement affected the state decision at all,” Simon said. “They’re just not letting the federal government dictate a failed policy to them. Policy makers in Montpelier understand that the failed policy at the federal level is not an excuse to continue (that policy) at the state level.”
It’s understandable if dispensaries are remaining cautious, Simon said.
“They’re focused on trying to serve their customers, which are seriously ill patients who need cannabis,” he said. “Having a low profile makes sense. They’ve been very welcoming to lawmakers and anyone who wants to learn more about the business.”
Grassroots Vermont of Brandon and Vermont Patients Alliance of Montpelier, two more medical marijuana dispensaries, were unavailable for comment.
Kraig LaPorte, spokesman for Vermont U. S. Attorney Christina E. Nolan, said she is focusing on other issues.
“U.S. Attorney Nolan is continuing to focus on the heroin issue in Vermont, drug trafficking, violence associated with drug trafficking and gun violence,” he said. “That remains her focus. I can only outline her initiative, I can’t speak for her.”
Asked whether Sessions’ announcement rescinding the Cole Memorandum would affect prosecution in Vermont, LaPorte declined to comment.
Attempts to reach Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan for comment were unsuccessful.
Simon said getting involved in the discussion is the only constructive way for residents to react.
“We’ve heard an outpouring of support from voters and representatives in Congress,” Simon said. “Most of the Vermonters I’ve talked to think it should happen a long time ago. If you care about the impacts, either negative or positive, be a part of the conversation. Don’t try to delay it.”
A statewide survey of 755 registered voters conducted by Public Policy Polling last March revealed 57 percent of Vermont voters support allowing adults 21 and older to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana. The survey found 39 percent of voters are opposed.
An October 2017, a Gallup poll found 64 percent of Americans support making marijuana legal.
According to the State of Vermont Marijuana Registry, 4,438 patients were registered as medical marijuana recipients last June.