In January, Vermont became the ninth state to legalize marijuana—and the first to end cannabis prohibition through an act of lawmakers, rather than a ballot initiative. But with the law set to take effect on July 1, questions remain about how the recreational system will actually function.
What you need to know
Vermont Governor Phil Scott (R) signed the adult-use legalization bill, H. 511, into law on January 22. The governor said that he had “mixed feelings” about the legislation, but added that he believed “what adults do behind closed doors and on private property is their choice, so long as it does not negatively impact the health and safety of others, especially children.”
The law permits adults 21 and older to:
- Possess up to an ounce of cannabis, or five grams of hashish.
- Grow “two mature and four immature marijuana plants” on private property in a secured enclosure that’s kept out of public sight.
- Those plants wouldn’t count toward the one ounce possession limitation.
- If you don’t own the property, you’d have to get the property owner’s permission before cultivating cannabis.
“Consumption of marijuana in a public place or in a vehicle is prohibited as is possession of an open container of marijuana in a vehicle, and violations are subject to civil penalties,” a summary of the bill text explains. There are also penalties for providing or “enabling consumption” of marijuana to individuals under 21.
The legislation doesn’t explicitly address marijuana “gifting,” which has served as a way to circumvent market restrictions in certain legal jurisdictions like the District of Columbia.
Employers are still allowed to enforce policies against consuming, cultivating or displaying marijuana in the workplace.
Are you an employer with questions about VT's recreational marijuana law that goes into effect 7/1? Today, we released a guidance for employers on how to navigate the law. Comments? email our Civil Rights Unit at [email protected] #vtbusinesseshttps://t.co/Xl955mOZNq
— Vermont AG Donovan (@VTAttorneyGen) June 14, 2018
If an employer has a no-tolerance drug policy, employees can be fired for violating that policy even if they use cannabis outside the workplace. However, the Vermont Attorney General’s office cautioned employers when it comes to penalizing medical cannabis patients suffering from debilitating conditions in a recent guidance report:
“Under [Vermont’s Fair Employment Practices Act], it is unlawful for any employer, employment agency, or labor organization to discriminate against a “qualified individual with a disability.” Discrimination means not only intentional mistreatment of a disabled employee or applicant, but also failure to provide a reasonable accommodation to that individual… employees carrying a medical marijuana card and those dealing with substance abuse issues may be protected under VFEPA’s disability provisions.”
The new system does not provide access to cannabis seeds or products at dispensaries, as is the case in other states where recreational marijuana is legal. And that’s where things start to get tricky.
Where are adult users supposed to obtain cannabis or seeds to grow their own plants if there’s no legal retail system in place? If you’re a registered medical marijuana patient, who does have access to dispensaries that sell cannabis and seeds, then you could hypoathetically circumvent that issue; but for adults outside the medical system, the conflicting regulations could create headaches.
“Legalization advocates argue that people who are interested in growing marijuana probably have access already,” The Burlington Free Press reported. “The main difference after legalization, they say, will be the lifting of penalties and stigma.”
The winding road to non-commercial legalization in Vermont
While Vermont made history in January by becoming the first state to pass a legalization measure through the legislature, it wasn’t necessarily a smooth path to reform. It’s taken about two years, since the state Senate first voted in favor of a tax and regulate legalization bill—which the House ultimately rejected.
Even as recently as April, Vermont lawmakers attempted to rally support for a commercial legalization bill but were defeated in a floor vote. But House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) and others cautioned that the timing wasn’t right, considering the fact that the governor had just signed the non-commercial legalization bill into law just three months prior.
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D) told Vermont Public Radio in April that regardless of the fate of the eleventh-hour effort to move a tax and regulate legalization bill forward, it would only be a matter of time.
“This vote does not reflect the sentiment of the people, and when the sentiment of the people is reflected in this body, it will move forward,” Zuckerman said.
Are medical marijuana patients being left behind as the state prepares to implement its recreational system?
Though adult users won’t have a legal way to obtain cannabis or seeds under the law, there are a number of other differences in how laws apply to medical patients and recreational consumers. For example, adults over 21 are allowed to grow up to six plants outdoors, whereas medical patients can grow up to nine plants—but they’re required to keep their grows indoors.
Also, while harvested cannabis doesn’t count toward a recreational user’s one ounce possession restriction, harvested plants do count toward medical patients two ounce possession restriction.
“I’ve heard concerns from several medical cannabis patients and their loved ones that they cannot get clear guidance from anyone in state government regarding how many plants they are allowed to grow for their own use, and how they may grow them,” Dave Silberman, a Middlebury, Vermont attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate, told Marijuana Moment.
“Many patients are wondering whether these rights can be ‘stacked,’ such that, for example, a married couple consisting of one registered medical patient and one non-patient could legally grow four mature plants (two for “adult use” and two for “symptom relief”),” he said.
There is currently a bill being considered in special session that aims to reconcile some of these regulatory differences, according to The Burlington Free Press. Among other things, the bills seeks to impose “locked container transport” requirements that are currently in effect for medical patients but do not apply to adult users. It would also clarify the state’s prohibition on providing cannabis to individuals under 21 under the recreational system, as medical patients may be under 21 and the law doesn’t offer assurances to medical caregivers that they wouldn’t be penalized under the new law.
“Vermont’s homegrow law is a great first step, but is incomplete,” Silberman said. “Despite the failure to move [a more wide-ranging legalization bill, H. 490] forward this past session, I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to move forward quickly in 2019 with a comprehensive bill to establish a regulated market and clear up the inconsistencies between the current ‘adult use’ and ‘medical’ regimes, as more and more legislators are coming to understand the reality that it’s the same damned cannabis either way.”
In the meantime, beginning on July 1, adults over 21 in Vermont will finally be able to legally use, possess and grow marijuana without a doctor’s recommendation.
New Hampshire Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill
A New Hampshire House committee approved a bill on Tuesday that would legalize marijuana for adult use in the state.
While the legislation doesn’t provide for retail sales, it would allow individuals 21 and older to possess and gift up to three-fourths an ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants. The model would be similar to neighboring Vermont’s non-commercial cannabis system.
The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee advanced the bill in a 13-7 vote.
“I think that the legalization of cannabis is more popular than the legislature itself or the governor or any other political entity in the state of New Hampshire,” Chairman Renny Cushing (D) said prior to the vote. “This is something that the people of the state of New Hampshire want. They don’t want to be treated like they’re criminals if they have a plant.”
Watch New Hampshire lawmakers discuss the marijuana legalization bill below:
This vote comes a week after the panel held a hearing on the proposal, with advocates and stakeholders testifying in favor of the reform move.
“Like most Granite Staters, this committee understands that it’s time for New Hampshire to stop prohibiting cannabis,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “Adults in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state should not be punished for their choice to use a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol.”
“Now that New Hampshire is literally surrounded by jurisdictions where cannabis is legal for adults, our current policies can no longer be justified in any way,” he said. “It’s time for the House, Senate and Gov. Chris Sununu to work together and move cannabis policies into the 21st century.”
A floor vote by the full House of Representatives is expected on February 6.
Tax-and-regulate marijuana legislation has advanced in the legislature in prior sessions, but it never arrived on the governor’s desk.
Even if it did make it that far, however, it’s unclear if Sununu, a Republican, would sign it. He’s voiced opposition to commercial legalization, and he vetoed a bill last year that would’ve allowed medical cannabis patients to cultivate their own marijuana, raising questions about whether he’d be willing to support this latest measure extending that right to all adults over 21.
In any case, the New Hampshire development comes amid a flurry of legislative activity around cannabis in the Northeast.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included legalization in his budget last week, as did Rhode Island’s governor, who pitched a state-run cannabis model in her plan. In New Jersey, the legislature approved a referendum to put the question of recreational legalization before voters during the November election. Top lawmakers in Connecticut are also confident that marijuana reform will advance this year. In Vermont, advocates are hopeful that lawmakers will add a legal sales component to the state’s current noncommercial cannabis law.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
AOC Says Colorado Is Doing A ‘Great Job’ With Marijuana Legalization
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) says Colorado is an example of a state that’s effectively taxing and regulating marijuana.
At a town hall event in Iowa on Saturday, the congresswoman, who serves as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) presidential campaign, was asked if revenue from legal sales of cannabis and other drugs would be used to fund the senator’s Medicare for All proposal.
While she said the economic benefits of legalization are secondary concerns, she acknowledged that “Colorado is doing a great job of taxing it to fund schools.”
That said, funding large programs such as universal health care would require a diverse financing strategy, Ocasio-Cortez said.
“In terms of financing, I think the financing for our health care program would potentially come from different sources,” she said. “Senator Sanders has outlined how he would pay for Medicare for All.”
“I would just say the financing is a different question,” she said. “But when it comes to decriminalization and legalization, I know that the senator believes in the legalization of marijuana and, frankly, having that part of a decarceral approach” to the criminal justice system.
Listen to the conversation below, starting around 1:45:
“We need to not only have a conversation about decriminalization and a conversation about legalization, but we need to have a conversation about the harm done during the war on drugs,” she said in comments that were first flagged by The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel.
First actual Q for AOC as a Sanders surrogate: Would she legalize drugs to pay for M4A?
"The funding is going to come from a lot of sources," she says, clarifying that Sanders supports legalizing only marijuana and is focused on ending war on drugs.
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) January 25, 2020
“It exacerbated the racial wealth gap in America as well,” she said. “But not only that, it tore apart communities, it tore apart families and it was an explicit targeting of black and brown communities that dates back to the Nixon administration.”
“On one hand it’s an economic issue, but much deeper, it’s a justice issue. This is an issue of justice, this is an issue of mass incarceration. The United States has historically incarcerated more people per capita than any other country in the world. We need to live up to our values about what ‘Land of the Free’ means and transitioning to that means dismantling the system of mass incarceration. That’s an incredibly important part of this agenda.”
While Sanders has been a long-standing champion of cannabis reform, his views on broader drug policy proposals diverge from those of his surrogate, who believes that possession of all currently illicit drugs should be decriminalized and federal laws around psychedelics should be loosened to promote research.
Despite being widely regarded as the most progressive candidates in the race, both Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have so far declined to back comprehensive decriminalization for simple drug possession, a policy changed favored by former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), another 2020 contender, recently said that she’s in favor of legalizing and regulating controlled substances.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.
USDA Approves Hemp Plans For Texas, Nebraska And Delaware
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Monday that it has approved hemp regulatory plans for three more states and four additional Indian tribes.
This is the latest in a series of approvals that USDA has doled out since the crop and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. Texas, Nebraska and Delaware—in addition to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and the Yurok Tribe—each had their regulatory plans cleared.
“USDA continues to receive and review hemp production plans from states and Indian tribes on an ongoing basis,” the department said in a notice. “Plans previously approved include those for the states of Louisiana, New Jersey, and Ohio, and the Flandreau Santee Sioux, Santa Rosa Cahuilla, and La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indian Tribes.”
While hemp is no longer a federally controlled substance, farmers interested in cultivating and selling the crop must live in a jurisdiction where USDA has approved a proposed regulatory scheme. The process was outlined in an interim final rule USDA published late last year. If a state or tribe does not have, or plan to propose, regulations for hemp, cultivators can apply for a USDA license instead.
“This is a victory for Texas farmers,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in a statement. “We are one step closer to giving our ag producers access to this exciting new crop opportunity.”
“We’ve got to get our rules approved and get our licensing program up and running, but the dominoes are dropping pretty quick,” he said. “We’re almost there.”
Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment that “Texas has the potential to be the largest supplier of hemp in the U.S., providing farmers with an unprecedented opportunity.”
“With approval from the USDA and the Texas Department of Agriculture already moving forward with establishing licensing standards, it’s refreshing to see our government paving the way for legal cannabis cultivation in Texas,” Fazio said.
While lawmakers and industry stakeholders have widely celebrated USDA’s commitment to implementing hemp legalization, it has also received a significant amount of pushback over proposed rules such as THC limits and laboratory testing requirements. A public comment period for the department’s interim rule ends on Wednesday.
USDA maintains a website that tracks the status of state and tribal hemp plans.
Monday’s announcement sends another signal to the hemp industry that the federal government is committed to supporting the market and ensuring that farmers have the resources they need to see their businesses thrive since the crop was legalized.
That said, one of the most lucrative market opportunities that hemp farmers are hoping to take advantage of is the widespread interest in hemp-derived CBD products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has jurisdiction over rules for marketing CBD, and the agency has made clear that the process may take several years without congressional action.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers set out to do just that, filing a bill that would require FDA to allow CBD products to be sold as dietary supplements.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.