Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, announced Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, the formation of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, a collaboration of groups that support the legalization of marijuana in Vermont. Photo by Tom Brown/VTDigger
Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, speaks to reporters in early 2015. File photo by Tom Brown/VTDigger
[A]s the dust settles on the results of the 2016 general election, two New England states are en route to establishing legalized, regulated marijuana systems.

Massachusetts and Maine are among four states across the country where voters approved ballot initiatives to legalize recreational pot. California and Nevada also went pro-legalization in Tuesday’s vote. That brings to eight the number of states with recreational pot, plus the District of Columbia.

The vote in Maine was very close and may face a recount.

The prospect of a legal market on Vermont’s southern border, as well as in nearby Maine, could influence Vermont lawmakers on the issue in the next biennium — though whether the initiatives will speed up Gov.-elect Phil Scott’s wait-and-see stance on legalization for Vermont remains to be seen.

At the least, according to the Marijuana Policy Project’s Matt Simon, the results in Maine and Massachusetts will put to rest one refrain from lawmakers who were cautious on the issue last year when considering a legalization bill.

“There won’t be any more talk of Vermont potentially going it alone and potentially being the only state on the East Coast defying the federal government on marijuana prohibition,” Simon said.

Throughout the course of the last legislative session, as lawmakers worked on, but ultimately defeated, a bill that would have legalized marijuana, many raised the question of the impact on Vermont of legalization efforts in nearby states.

One failed amendment to the bill, S.241, would have triggered legalization in Vermont if Massachusetts’ measure passed.

Maxine Grad
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
The other states’ ballot initiatives could give lawmakers “a greater degree of comfort” on the issue, Simon said.

Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, who oversaw the House’s work on legalization during the last session as Judiciary Committee chair, expects that the success of the ballot initiatives in New England will be a topic of discussion when the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee convenes later this month.

“No longer will we be alone,” Grad said. “It will be on our borders.”

The off-session panel has met half a dozen times to take testimony on the issue in recent months. She said the work the panel has done will help lawmakers make the best decision on marijuana policy for the state.

“I think that we’re in a better position than these other states that we can be thoughtful and deliberative and do something that really works for Vermont,” Grad said.

At a news conference Wednesday, Scott addressed Massachusetts’ ballot measure and reiterated his position.

“I was never wanting to say never in terms of legalization, I just said that it wasn’t the time,” Scott said.

He told reporters he looks forward to learning from Massachusetts’ experience and to seeing what legislation comes to his desk.

Simon said he is hopeful the ballot measures will change Scott’s tune on the issue.

“He’s said all along that he’s not dead-set against it. For him it’s a question of when and how,” Simon said. “And we think that the fact that two other New England states are moving forward is a pretty strong argument to consider doing it now.”

Meanwhile, the new presidential administration of Donald Trump has the potential to affect legalization.

Despite the loosening of state marijuana laws across the country, the substance remains illegal under federal law.

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice has operated according to an August 2013 guidance on marijuana for federal prosecutors, widely known as the Cole memo. In light of an expansion of medical and regulated marijuana systems in states across the country, the memo listed eight priorities for prosecuting crimes that largely allowed state-authorized sales to occur unhindered.

With a new U.S. attorney general appointed by Trump’s administration, the federal stance on marijuana legalization could change.

Where exactly the president-elect stands on the topic is unclear, but he said in 2015 that marijuana legalization should be left to states to decide.

Whether or not new marijuana laws in Massachusetts and Maine prod policy changes in Vermont, some are bracing for effects from a regulated marijuana market on Vermont’s southern boundary.

Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt said many motorists in the southern Vermont county regularly cross the border to Massachusetts. Many commute from Massachusetts to Vermont daily for work.

He doesn’t know how widespread cross-border drugged driving or marijuana possession will be in light of the new law to the south, but he is expecting an increase.

“You have to logically lead down that path,” Schmidt said.

He is staunchly opposed to legalization in Vermont, though he thinks it is likely to happen eventually. He would like to see action on the federal level first, though.

“I get paid to worry,” Schmidt said.

Twitter: @emhew. Elizabeth Hewitt is the Sunday editor for VTDigger. She grew up in central Vermont and holds a graduate degree in magazine journalism from New York University.

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