Editor’s note: This commentary is by Kimberly Cheney, of Stowe, a former Vermont attorney general and a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) , a nonprofit group of prosecutors, police, judges and other criminal justice professionals who use their expertise to advance public safety solutions.
In May, Gov. Phil Scott missed a chance to make history by becoming the first governor in the nation to sign a bill ending marijuana prohibition. S.22 would have legalized possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, two mature plants, and four immature plants, by adults 21 or older.
Despite the governor’s veto, Vermont still has a unique opportunity to become the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislative process. (The eight states that have legalized marijuana have all done so by popular vote, which is not an option in Vermont.) Gov. Scott gave advocates a reason to be hopeful during his veto statement when he expressed interest in supporting a revised version of the bill. He even said that it may be possible to pass this compromise bill during a veto session that is scheduled to begin June 21.
It is imperative that Gov. Scott and legislators work together to move the state forward on this issue without further delay. From my perspective, having spent years as a prosecutor and as the attorney general of Vermont, this reform to our state’s criminal justice system is long overdue.
My colleagues and I at Law Enforcement Action Partnership know from personal experience that marijuana prohibition has failed, and we are not alone. Last year, then-Attorney General Bill Sorrell and former Attorney General Jerome Diamond joined me in signing a letter of support of a bill that would have legalized, regulated and taxed marijuana in Vermont. That bill, S.241, passed the Senate but stalled in the House.
This year, I was pleased to see the House agree with the Senate that marijuana should be made legal for adults to grow and possess in limited quantities. Allowing home cultivation won’t eliminate the underground market, but it will give many Vermonters who would like to abide by the laws of our state an opportunity to avoid buying marijuana from illicit dealers. S.22 also contained an important study commission, which would have been tasked with making recommendations for regulating and taxing marijuana in Vermont.
If policymakers in Montpelier truly wish to minimize the harms associated with marijuana, it is essential that they get this study commission up and running as soon as possible. Although eliminating penalties for personal possession and cultivation is important, Vermont urgently needs to develop and implement a plan to regulate marijuana production and sale, rather than leaving these lucrative tasks to continue being performed by gangs, cartels and criminals.
Allowing home cultivation won’t eliminate the underground market, but it will give many Vermonters who would like to abide by the laws of our state an opportunity to avoid buying marijuana from illicit dealers.
I understand the concerns that Gov. Scott and others have expressed about protecting public safety and keeping young people safe. However, our current marijuana policy is counterproductive on both fronts. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, marijuana remains widely available and used across Vermont. In fact, the Rand Corporation estimated that about 80,000 Vermonters use marijuana regularly, and that they spend about $175 million each year buying marijuana from criminals. Any policy that results in this many Vermonters buying marijuana from illicit drug dealers is very unlikely to be beneficial for public safety.
With regard to protecting youth, which is important to every serious participant in this debate, I hope Gov. Scott understands that this is one of the most important reasons for moving to a regulated market approach. Requiring an ID at the point of sale won’t prevent every young person from getting their hands on marijuana, but it will make access more difficult. We should remember that the illicit drug dealers who currently dominate the marijuana market don’t care about their customers’ age. Marijuana dealers are also likely to sell other drugs, too, which means a young buyer may have access to lethal drugs with far more dangerous consequences.
Vermonters should not tolerate any further delay on this issue, especially now that our House, Senate and governor all agree with the majority of Vermonters that marijuana prohibition should be brought to an end. Our neighbors in Maine and Massachusetts have already legalized marijuana, and both states are expected to have retail markets operating by next summer, so it’s hard to imagine what we might gain by kicking the can down the road until the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Our governor and legislative leaders should view the June veto session as a golden opportunity to demonstrate that they are capable of working together on marijuana policy. I’m hopeful they’ll make the right choice.