Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, is moving to greener pastures.
The advocate for legal cannabis is currently based out of New Hampshire, but the intransigence in the Granite State when it comes to marijuana policy has convinced Simon that it’s time for a change of scenery.
“The stars seem to be aligning [for legalization] in Vermont,” Simon told VTDigger on Tuesday. “We can’t even get the New Hampshire Senate to have an adult conversation about the relative merits of legalization.”
Simon said he plans to move to the Green Mountain State, and more specifically Montpelier, in January for the upcoming legislative session, where the legalization and regulation of recreational marijuana is expected to be a focus.
He points to widespread support from the executive branch in Vermont as a hopeful sign. Gov. Peter Shumlin and Attorney General Bill Sorrell have expressed qualified support for legalization, and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn has indicated he won’t oppose legalization — stopping just short of endorsing it.
That’s in stark contrast to New Hampshire’s executive branch, which has resisted the smaller step of marijuana decriminalization, Simon said. The New Hampshire Legislature is also more resistant to marijuana reforms than Vermont’s, he said. The New Hampshire Senate rejected a House-passed bill to study marijuana legalization this year, and it has also shot down decriminalization. Both are steps Vermont has already taken.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” he said. While he doesn’t expect the Legislature in Vermont to “rubber stamp” a legalization bill, he sees far greater opportunity west of the Connecticut River. Simon hopes another election will change things in New Hampshire. That’s because Simon is optimistic 2016 will be a big year for marijuana legalization in New England.
The Marijuana Policy Project anticipates getting legalization referendums onto the ballot in Massachusetts and Maine, Simon said, and he’s optimistic they will pass. If Vermont is able to legalize marijuana through its Legislature (there are no ballot referendums in Vermont), then New Hampshire will be left on a “prohibitionist island.” That could make things look different for lawmakers and the executive branch in New Hampshire going forward, he said.
If adopted, Vermont would be the first state to legalize the use of recreational pot through its Legislature.
Shap Smith on board
Simon’s aspirations for legalization in Vermont received a major boost this week when House Speaker Shap Smith, a Democratic candidate for governor, told VPR he would support legalization — as long as it’s done thoughtfully.
While he hasn’t actively opposed marijuana legalization, Smith has not made its passage a priority in the House.
In an interview with VTDigger on Tuesday, Smith said for the past year-and-a-half his position has been that Vermont should wait and see how legalization plays out in states like Washington and Colorado, to see what the impacts are and what lessons could be learned.
Based on what he’s observed in those states, and his ongoing conversation with Vermonters, Smith said he thinks Vermont can responsibly legalize marijuana in the upcoming session. The details are going to matter, Smith said, though he wasn’t prepared to delve into them Tuesday.
Smith said he expects a bill to come over from the Senate, and if that happens, it will get a full hearing in the House.
“We’ll see if we can move it forward this year,” he said. “If we do it the right way, I’m going to support legalization. I think what’s most important is for us to get it right. It’s not how fast we do it.”
Smith’s words are music to the ears of Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, who has in the past introduced legislation to legalize marijuana. In a statement coordinated with the Progressive Party, Zuckerman said he’s pleased with the speaker’s “sensible and proactive approach as we move toward legalization and regulation of cannabis.”
“His support will be welcome this coming legislative session,” Zuckerman added.
Correction (Sept. 2, 7:40 a.m.): This story has been updated to reflect that the New Hampshire Senate rejected a marijuana legalization study bill and decriminalization legislation.