Vermont appears poised to become the next state to legalize marijuana. And, according to top elected officials, it is likely to do so within a matter of weeks.
Last week, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, a Democrat, said she expects “it likely will pass in early January.”
Days earlier, Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, said he is “comfortable” signing a cannabis legalization bill into law in early 2018.
And on Thursday, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, a member of the Progressive Party, said he and his colleagues “look forward to working with the governor to make sure that that bill gets to the finish line.”
If the tripartisan group of officials follows through and enacts legalization in early 2018, it would make Vermont the first state to end cannabis prohibition by an act of lawmakers. All eight states that have legalized marijuana so far have done so via ballot measures approved by voters.
Meanwhile, New Jersey is also considered a top contender to become the first state to pass a cannabis legalization bill. Incoming Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, campaigned on the issue, and the state Senate’s president says he’s “committed” to passing a bill next year.
But the Green Mountain State has a considerable head start on the Garden State.
In Vermont, which operates on a legislative biennium, the Senate has already passed the legalization bill. All that is required to get it to Scott’s desk for signing into law is one more House floor vote, and that could happen any day after the legislature reconvenes on January 3.
In 2017, the state fell just short of ending marijuana prohibition. Both legislative chambers approved a legalization proposal, but Scott vetoed it. However, the governor then laid out a few small revisions he wanted legislators to make in order to garner his signature. The Senate quickly acted to make the requested changes, but the House wasn’t able to overcome procedural hurdles to pass the revised bill in time during a short special session over the summer.
The legislation remains on the House calendar, and can be approved with a simple majority under regular order next month.
Under the bill, Vermont’s approach to legalization would differ from the regulatory systems that exist in the other eight legalization states. That’s because instead of allowing licensed stores where consumers could purchase marijuana, it would simply enact a noncommercial form of legalization where possessing small amounts of cannabis and growing a few plants at home would be legal. However, the Senate-approved legislation would create a commission to study possible future commercialization.
During the legislative recess, Scott used an executive order to proactively create a marijuana legalization study commission on his own, so there is a chance that the pending bill will be amended to remove its commission provisions before lawmakers vote on final passage. And that could potentially mean that it will take slightly more time than just one additional House floor vote.
“Part of that bill is no longer needed,” Scott said this month, referring to the commission piece.
While saying that he has not yet “spoken to legislative leaders” about the language, he suggested lawmakers might want to “make some changes on the floor, send it back to committee, make some alterations and then we’ll see what they either add or delete and then we’ll see if it’s the same as what I committed to pushing forward with.”
But accomplishing those changes likely would not take very long, advocates say, given the consensus between legislative leaders and Scott on getting legalization enacted that seemed to crystalize during the 2017 session.
“After years of starts and stops, Governor Scott and the legislature are finally on the same page with respect to cannabis policy reform, and it now seems clear that Vermont will legalize possession and personal cultivation within weeks,” Dave Silberman, a Middlebury attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate, said in an interview. “This is a testament to the power of public pressure, after thousands of Vermonters called and wrote the governor in opposition to his veto of a nearly identical legalization bill just last May, and shows that, when it comes to drug policy reform, the more we speak, the more we win.”
Matt Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, agreed, adding that success in Vermont will likely signal the start of a wave of legislative action on cannabis in other states.
“Vermont now finds itself on the cusp of becoming the first state to legalize marijuana through its legislature,” he said in an email. “The legislative process is slower than the [ballot] initiative process by its very nature, but this exciting development should bring hope to the millions of reform supporters who live in states that don’t allow initiatives. I’m confident that other state legislatures will soon follow their lead.”
Photo courtesy of M a n u e l.
GOP Senator Reveals What Trump Said About Jeff Sessions’s Anti-Marijuana Moves
President Donald Trump immediately rebuked then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the day that he rescinded Justice Department guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) revealed during an interview on the Cannabis Economy podcast earlier this month.
Following a meeting on trade and tariffs in the Oval Office, Gardner pulled Trump aside to express his opposition to the rescission of the Obama-era cannabis document known as the Cole Memo. But before he could finish his sentence, the president interrupted to say “we need undo this” and “[Sessions] needs to stop this.”
“It was very clear to me at that point that there was a disagreement between the president and the attorney general on this,” Gardner said. Trump also said, “I don’t like this, this isn’t something I support,” but that it was too late to reverse the decision.
“This sounds like something my grandpa said in the 1950s,” was an exact phrase the president used, per Gardner’s recollection.
“At that point I realized that there was an ally in the president on this.”
In response to Sessions’s decision, Gardner started blocking Justice Department nominees until he received assurances that the federal government would not take enforcement action against legal cannabis businesses operating in compliance with state laws. That blockage prompted a subsequent phone call with the president, who said there was one nominee in particular he wanted to confirm.
Listen to Gardner’s interview with the Cannabis Economy podcast below:
Gardner explained why he was holding nominees, to which Trump replied, “OK, you’ve got my commitment to support the bill, you’ve got my commitment to support a solution on this,” referring to bipartisan legislation Gardner and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from enforcement under the Controlled Substance Act.
Trump later told reporters that he “really” supports the legislation, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Entrusting States (STATES) Act.
During his conversation with the president, Gardner cautioned that states like Colorado would be put in jeopardy if the Justice Department followed through on Sessions’s threats. But Trump said, “we’re not going to do that, it doesn’t mean anything.”
“That was the commitment from the president not only on showing that he’s going to disagree with Jeff Sessions, but actually saying, ‘don’t worry about what he’s done because it won’t impact Colorado,’ and then moving forward down for a solution,” Gardner said.
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) February 22, 2019
Sessions resigned from his position at the president’s request in November, and the Senate confirmed his replacement, William Barr earlier this month. Barr was repeatedly pressed about how he would approach federal cannabis policy during his confirmation hearing and in followup questions, and he made consistent pledges not to use Justice Department resources to “go after” state-legal marijuana businesses.
He did, however, encourage Congress to resolve conflicting federal and state cannabis laws through legislative action.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
Five Governors Talk Marijuana And Hemp At Media Conference
The governors of five states weighed in on marijuana and hemp during appearances at Politico’s ninth annual “State Solutions” conference on Friday.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) said hemp should be regulated “just like any crop” and emphasized that he wants his state to continue to expand its legal hemp and marijuana economies. The pro-legalization governor, who pledged to make Colorado the nation’s leader in industrial hemp production during his State of the State address last month, also pulled out a business card printed on hemp paper during the event.
Then the conversation pivoted to broader federal cannabis policy. Polis said “there’s an existential threat to everything we’re doing in Colorado” because of the lack of formal protections against federal intervention in state marijuana laws.
“Obviously the counterbalance to that is the federal government—even if they somehow did make this more of an enforcement priority—don’t have the ability on the ground to prosecute so many people,” he said.
“I hope that they can either reinstate something like the Cole memorandum or, even better, that Congress can finally move forward with changing the laws and leaving it up to the states,” the governor said, referring to Obama-era marijuana enforcement guidance that then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded last year.
Polis also said that if the state got wind of pending federal enforcement, “it would be of great concern and we would bring that to the highest levels of the White House.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), whose constituents voted to legalize medical marijuana during November’s midterm election, was asked what he thought about allowing the use of medical cannabis to treat opioid addiction.
“I think everybody would like to have any kind of medicine that will help alleviate pain and suffering,” including opioid dependence, he said. But he said the federal government was at fault for failing to address cannabis rescheduling in order to enhance clinical research into the plant’s therapeutic benefits.
“We ought to change the law, allow it to be studied,” he said. “What are we afraid of?”
And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) discussed the state’s possible legalization of industrial hemp. She said it was important to wait for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release “federal guidelines” on hemp production first and also to ensure that the state has the money and resources to regulate the crop.
The conversation comes after Noem urged the state Senate to postpone a scheduled hearing on an industrial hemp cultivation bill, a request the body ultimately agreed to earlier this week. The legislation passed the House in a 62-5 vote last week.
During the interview, Noem also expressed concerns generally about the lack of roadside drug tests to determine impaired driving from marijuana, and she said it’s important as governor to consider the public safety ramifications” of an industrial hemp market.
The second session of the conference featured Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who also spoke about cannabis.
Brown touted the legal cannabis industry and said it has stimulated job growth in Oregon, where she said about 20,000 people work for marijuana and hemp businesses. It should be a “top priority” for Congress to ensure that the cannabis industry has access to banking services, she said.
The Connecticut governor reiterated his belief that the state will legalize marijuana and “do it right” during his interview.
Without a regulated cannabis system, the illicit market will continue to thrive and people are already “driving over the border” to Massachusetts, where adult use is legal, so “that train has left the station,” he said. A significant portion of the Connecticut House has already signed onto an adult use legalization bill
But the existing system breeds “disrespect for the law,” Lamont added. What’s more, cannabis enforcement disproportionately targets communities of color, which is part of the reason that he considers legalization a “criminal justice issue.”
Legalization legislation should also involve expunging the records of individuals with prior cannabis convictions, he said.
Lamont revealed that he’s talked to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who has recently and reluctantly embraced reform in response to neighboring states moving to legalize, and that the two agreed to work together to create effective marijuana systems in their respective states.
This story was updated to add comments from Brown and Lamont.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.
Florida Senator Wants To Let Voters Decide On Marijuana Legalization
A joint resolution introduced in the Florida Senate on Thursday would add a new section to the Florida Constitution to establish the right “to possess, use and cultivate cannabis.”
“This right may not be infringed, except that the transfer of cannabis by purchase or sale may be regulated by law as necessary to ensure public health and safety,” reads the measure, which would apply to adults over 21 years of age.
If approved by lawmakers, the question would go before voters in the 2020 general election.
The resolution, introduced by Sen. Randolph Bracy (D) of Orlando, comes as Florida lawmakers weigh other bills that would expand the allowable forms of medical marijuana in the state.
“I think if we just go straight to the people and ask them, ‘is this something that you want,’ it puts the onus back on us to regulate it,” Bracy told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “I think it’s such a controversial issue that the legislature is not in a position to agree on how it should be regulated. The best way to do it is to go through the people and then it will come back to us to figure out how to regulate it.”
“I’ve always thought the people are more progressive on this issue than the legislature is and I believe they are ready for legalization of marijuana. Whenever I hear from folks, it’s always a resounding ‘yes.’”
Under regulations instituted after voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016, patients are prohibited from smoking the drug. But new Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has called on lawmakers to change that, threatening to drop the state’s appeal of a lawsuit seeking to over turn the ban if the legislature doesn’t act by mid-March.
The two proposals are expected to receive floor votes in their respective chambers within the next few weeks.
“From the House perspective, the biggest sticking point is children,” State Rep. Ray Rodrigues told Florida Politics. “We don’t believe children should be smoking medical marijuana…but we’re having conversations.”
The 2016 ballot measure added language in the state constitution allowing the use of medical cannabis by those with cancer, AIDS/HIV, epilepsy or other conditions as determined by their doctor. Two years earlier, a similar measure got majority support from voters but fell short of the 60 percent threshold required to pass.
If Bracy’s full legalization amendment advances to the ballot, it appears to have a good chance of passing. A poll last year found that Florida registered voters support “legalizing and regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, limiting its sale to residents 21 years of age or older” by a margin of 62 percent to 35 percent.
This story has been updated to add comment from Bracy.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.