Lawmakers in Vermont might pave the way for your state to legalize.
Legislators in Bernie Sanders' home state have been busy since Governor Peter Shumlin's Jan. 7 State of the State address, in which he called on lawmakers to develop and pass legislation to legalize marijuana in the Green Mountain State. This week, the state's Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve the bill, which will now advance to the Senate Finance Committee, which will discuss how to tax cannabis. Then it will continue on to the next stage in its process toward reaching the governor's desk for final approval.
If successful, Vermont would become the first state to legalize recreational cannabis use through the legislature. Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, DC all changed their cannabis laws through ballot measures, which aren't an option in Vermont and many other states. So Vermont's poised to set a historic precedent for others to follow.
With that in mind, we reached out to Matt Simon - the Marijuana Policy Project's New England Political Director - and asked for his advice on how states that could legalize this way can get the ball rolling.
1. Get politicians engaged, break down stereotypes
Simon says that working with legislators involves opening channels of discussion by combating the stigmas surrounding cannabis:
"It's really fear of the unknown and 70+ years of propaganda that have prevented open discourse on this subject."
But now that legalization is on the table, legislators are eager to discuss the issue with experts and learn about cannabis culture:
"For many, their understanding is from the 60s and 70s, which means rolling a joint.They are interested in how the product is consumed. Some are freaked out about edibles. But it's good to see that they are curious. It used to be that I had to corner them and make them talk to me. Now legislators I don't even know are stopping me and asking questions."
2. Take baby steps on the way to legalization
So far, no state has gone straight from prohibition to the outright legalization of the recreational market. Each one has at least legalized medical marijuana before moving on to the recreational question. Groups in Florida and Ohio tried to become exceptions to this rule, but neither campaign was successful.
Simon argues that using the legislature to liberalize cannabis laws requires a slow, steady and patient approach:
"I think what the experience of Vermont says to other states is that through the legislature, small steps are the path to big success. Vermont passed medical marijuana in 2004, they expanded [access to] it in 2007, they added dispensaries [in 2011], they passed decriminalization [in 2013]. And all this time, they've been learning about marijuana and marijuana policy. And in states that don't take these steps, those conversations don't happen among legislators. If legislators start talking about these steps, these conditions improve. It's about creating a safe space for these discussions to happen."
3. Engage potential opponents in a respectful conversation
To create a safe space to discuss legalization, Simon says activists need to be calm and patient with politicians that don't jump on the legalization bandwagon right away:
"Rather than screaming at legislators or assuming that they'll never figure this out, give them a chance. Call them. Send them some links. In most cases I think you'll find that they're willing to have a conversation with their constituents on this. And if not, you can vote them out. But the first step is to educate them and get them moving in the right direction. Once you get to the point Vermont has reached where the entire legislature is talking about the harms of prohibition versus the benefits of regulation - that's the real tipping point. Once they're talking about it on this level, I think there's no going back to the dark days of prohibition."
4. Challenge your own misconceptions
To have a productive conversation, activists should overcome their preconceptions about state politicians:
"I think one of the misconceptions I had when I started doing politics was that legislators had already been presented with this evidence and these arguments and rejected them despite their obvious logic. What I found was that most legislators haven't had a serious conversation about marijuana policy."
5. Appeal to common interests
Remember that state legislators are part of your community, so they should be concerned about your political values:
"A lot of people think of talking to their congressmen or senators in DC and think that's a waste of time, which is probably right. [But] state legislators are usually more responsive, and they're your neighbors in a lot of cases They have an obligation to listen to what you say and respond to it. If you engage them in a civil dialogue by asking them for their position on a bill and why, you can begin a civil conversation. That's the path forward. At the very least you'll find out that they won't change and you need to vote for someone else next time. But in a lot of cases you can make progress - a lot of progress."
6. Be prepared for the ups and downs
While Simon and other activists are optimistic about Vermont's chances of being the first state to legalize in this way, they also know many hurdles remain before legal cannabis becomes a reality:
"I have to wake up every morning believing we're going to win. We know the House is probably going to be more difficult than in the Senate. We have wonderful leadership in the Senate....We know that the House is going to be a tougher sell. They're going to want to take this thing apart and ask some tough questions. But we're going to be ready for that."