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Why Vermont's Failed Bill Is Only A Bump On The Road To Legalization

Despite what you've read in the news, marijuana legalization in Vermont isn't dead. Yes, the House defeated a Senate bill that would have legalized recreational marijuana use. But that setback hasn't derailed the movement.

"Definitely the best is yet to come," Matt Simon - New England Political Director of the Marijuana Policy Project - told Civilized. "I hate losing but we're not losing. We're on the way to marijuana being legal across New England in the next two to three years."

Here's why Simon is so positive.

1. A flawed bill died

Don't confuse the defeat of a bill with the death of an issue, cautions Simon. "There are many in the House who support legalization in concept but were not willing to support the bill that was before them yesterday because it got crushed by committees."

The Senate also hampered support by excluding one important measure from the original bill. "The [Senate's] removal of home grow was one factor that resulted in there being less enthusiasm for the bill when it went to the House. More people would've been willing to call and email their legislators and urge them to pass S.241 if it included some provision for home cultivation. That was a deal breaker for some supporters of legalization."

So this defeat has taught lawmakers about the interests and concerns of colleagues and constituents. That knowledge will undoubtedly help legislators when the issue is debated again, which Simon argues will be sooner than later.

2. Youth movement in 2017

The 2016 election could put Vermont back on track to becoming the first state to legalize via legislature.

"There's turnover every two years in Vermont, which is pretty much always a good thing on this issue which is supported more by younger politicians. Generally, prohibitionists are noticeably older - a lot of bald heads and white hairs among its standard-bearers. Younger politicians and younger voters are more likely to be supportive and to see [legalization] as an important issue."

And a new study commissioned by the state will help new lawmakers renew the debate in 2017: "This study is different because it's not asking should we do this. It's supposed to propose a comprehensive regulatory and revenue structure by December so that we can hit the ground running in 2017 with a new governor, new House and new Senate."

3. The process wasn't pointless

It's tempting to look at the dead bill as a wasted effort. But Simon says, "The process has been very positive...Vermont was capable of having this conversation in a mature way, without a whole bunch of giggling. [Legislators] recognized that their constituents want them to take this issue on rather than keep their heads in the sand."

And prohibitionists were forced to change their talking points along the way. "Most of them shifted their message from 'We should keep prohibition' to 'Let's put the brakes on and get another couple years of data on legalization in other states.' That was an effective message, but it's a temporary message. People who were against legalizing marijuana outright weren't very persuasive among legislators."

Indeed, many lawmakers were thrilled to participate in the historic process. "This is the first time the Vermont House has ever debated marijuana legalization. There were representatives walking out of the chamber saying, 'I finally got to vote on marijuana legalization!'

4. Even nonsensical arguments advanced the issue

"We got a lot of nonsense from prohibitionists," Simon noted, "but sometimes it takes people to stand up and talk nonsense for a few hours in order for people to understand how little substance there is to the opposition. And frankly to understand how hypocritical it is to take a 15-minute break to drink champagne before going back to reengage in those nonsensical debates."

Simon was referring to one point in the debate where the House took a 15-minute break to pop a few corks and celebrate the retirement of a civil servant. Then they returned to vote down marijuana legalization.

But attempts to stall the bill were even more absurd. Simon says that one representative recommended sending the bill to the Agriculture and Forest Products Committee because he'd heard marijuana was an invasive species that could threaten Vermont's environment. "That was a new one. I got a good laugh out of it, partly because I knew the motion would not succeed. There were definitely moments of entertainment mingled among moments of pain."

Simon added that some in the legislature started referring to these ridiculous stall tactics as 'Hail Mary Jane' plays.

5. Maine and Massachusetts could help Vermont

The push for marijuana reform in Vermont could get a huge boost if Maine and Massachusetts legalize recreational marijuana use in November 2016. "If they pass their ballot initiatives next fall, it's much easier to imagine Vermont passing it next year than not," according to Simon. "Many who didn't have sense of urgency this week expressed that they would have a sense of urgency if a neighboring state were to move ahead with a legal market."

That's because legislators know that Vermonters would likely visit neighboring states to buy marijuana, which would create regulatory and public safety issues at home. So becoming wedged between two legal states and a legal country (Canada) could expedite Vermont's path to legalization.

h/t Boston Globe


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