MONTPELIER, Vt. (May 15, 2017) – Last week, the Vermont House gave final approval to a bill that would legalize possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana. If signed by Gov. Phil Scott the legislation would help further thwart the deplorable federal prohibition on cannabis in the state.
Senate Bill 22 (S,22) originally set up a study commission to explore taxation and regulation of cannabis in the state. But at the last minute, the Senate amended it to include language from a bill that passed the House (H.170) last week. As amended, S.22 would legalize possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana and cultivation of two mature plants or four seedlings by adults 21 and over. The bill does not create any regulatory or taxing structure, and would not legalize the sale of marijuana. The measure retains language creating the study committee.
The Senate passed the amended version 20-9 on May 5. Today, the House concurred by a 79-66 vote. If the governor signs the bill, Vermont will become the first state to legalize marijuana through an act of the legislature.
The road to passage was a twisty one.
Last month, the Vermont Senate passed a more aggressive proposal that would not only have legalized marijuana possession, but also created a framework for commercial cultivation and retail sales. The measure passed after a procedural move by Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham). She added the measure as an amendment to H.167. The Senate passed the bill in concurrence with the amendment by a 21-9 vote. But it was clear the House was not going to approve the more expansive bill. It passed the more limited H.170 on May 3. Passage of S.22 with amendment language taken from the House bill was a Senate compromise that leaves the door open to expand the law in the future.
“I think it reflects that Vermont elected officials are more in touch with our constituents than a lot of elected officials in other states,” Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman told the Burlington Free Press. “I think the public is ahead of us, but elected officials tend to be cautious when it comes to change.”
EFFECT ON FEDERAL PROHIBITION
If S.22 becomes law would remove another layer of laws prohibiting the possession and use of marijuana, but federal prohibition would remain in place. Vermont has already taken a first step by legalizing medical marijuana, and in February, the state Senate passed a bill to expand that program.
Of course, the federal government lacks any legal authority to ban or regulate marijuana within the borders of a state, despite the opinion of the politically connected lawyers on the Supreme Court. If you doubt this, ask yourself why it took a constitutional amendment to institute federal alcohol prohibition.
While state law does not alter federal law, it takes a step toward stopping in effect the federal ban. FBI statistics show that law enforcement makes approximately 99 of 100 marijuana arrests under state, not federal law. By easing state prohibition, Vermont essentially sweeps away part of the basis for 99 percent of marijuana arrests.
Furthermore, figures indicate it would take 40 percent of the DEA’s yearly-budget just to investigate and raid all of the dispensaries in Los Angeles – a single city in a single state. That doesn’t include the cost of prosecution. The lesson? The feds lack the resources to enforce marijuana prohibition without state assistance.
Vermont is among a growing number of states simply ignoring federal prohibition. Colorado, Washington state, Oregon and Alaska have already legalized recreational cannabis with California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts set to join them after ballot initiatives in favor of legalization were passed in those states last November. More than 2-dozen states now allow cannabis for medical use. With half the country legalizing marijuana, the feds find themselves in a position where they simply can’t enforce prohibition any more. The feds need state cooperation to fight the “drug war,” and that has rapidly evaporated in the last few years with state legalization, practically blocking the ban.
“The lesson here is pretty straight forward. When enough people say, ‘No!’ to the federal government, and enough states pass laws backing those people up, there’s not much the feds can do to shove their so-called laws, regulations or mandates down our throats,” public policy analyst Michael Boldin said.
If transmitted before the session ends, Gov. Scott will have five days from the date of transmission to sign or veto S.22. If he takes no action, the bill will become law without his signature. If transmission occurs after the session ends, he will have three days to sign or it will be pocket-vetoed.