The Green Mountain state failed to live up to its nickname today. Vermont Governor Phil Scott has announced that he won't sign a bill to legalize recreational marijuana statewide. The bill was passed by the General Assembly earlier this month before heading to Governor Scott's desk, where he vetoed the fledgling law due to concerns about public safety. But he added that he would consider signing a revised bill as early as this summer.
"I’m not philosophically opposed to ending the prohibition on marijuana," Governor Scott said at a press conference earlier today in Montpelier. "However, I feel it is crucial that key questions and concerns about public safety are addressed before we move forward."
In general, he felt that the bill's penalties for people violating the proposed cannabis laws weren't tough enough - especially when it came to punishing people for exposing minors to marijuana or for driving under the influence of cannabis. And he wanted even harsher punishments for people committing multiple offences at once.
"We must recognize that marijuana is not alcohol and it’s not tobacco," Scott added. "This is not just a concern about impaired driving...Second-hand marijuana smoke can negatively impact a child’s development. Therefore, if an adult is caught smoking marijuana in a car with a minor, they must face stiffer punishments."
But he said that he might sign a revised bill as early as this summer if lawmakers get to work on tweaking the legislation with his recommendations - including tougher penalties and a more robust commission to develop regulations for a retail market in Vermont.
"The marijuana regulatory section [of the bill] must be enhanced in order for it to be taken seriously," Scott said, adding that the proposed commission needed to recruit members from the private sector to advise politicians on the issue. He also wants them to take the time to study best practices in Colorado, Oregon and other states that have legalized recreational marijuana.
"I think you should take about a year for the commission to do this work - including talking to different states and policy sectors. We would be the first to do this - to legalize by legislation. I think we need to move a bit slower."
That said, he thinks the state could still be on track to legalize by July 2018 - the original bill's timeline - if lawmakers act fast. When asked if he thought the House and Senate could revise the bill in time to pass this summer, Governor Scott said, "I believe so, if they’re motivated."
Sober Second Thoughts
Activists weren't happy about the veto, of course. But they are taking heart in the governor's assurances that he is open to signing a revised bill.
“We are disappointed by the governor’s decision to veto this widely supported legislation, but we are very encouraged by the governor’s offer to work with legislators to pass a legalization bill during the summer veto session," Matt Simon - New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project - said via press release. "Most Vermonters want to end marijuana prohibition, and it is critical that the legislature respond by passing a revised legalization bill this summer."
A lot of their work is already done for them. The original bill would have allowed people in Vermont to carry up to one ounce of marijuana in public and consume it legally in private. And residents would've been able to grow two mature plants or four immature plants at home. Since Governor Scott didn't object to either of those measures, they're likely okay by him. So lawmakers already have a head start on the new legislation.
And activists are encouraged by the state legislature's attempt to take a serious crack at legalizing recreational marijuana, which is uncharted territory in American politics. So far, every legal state has repealed prohibition through ballot initiatives, which aren't an option in Vermont as well as New York, Texas and other big states across the country. So getting a bill this far is a huge gain for the movement.
“Despite the veto, this is a huge leap forward," Simon added. "The passage of S. 22 demonstrates most members of both legislative chambers are ready to move forward with making marijuana legal for adults. Lawmakers have an opportunity to address the governor’s concerns and pass a revised bill this summer, and we are excited about its prospects.”
So they didn't get the touchdown they wanted, but they did move the ball forward.