On Wednesday, February 24, a scant 29 politicians in the Vermont legislative chamber made history for the cannabis legalization movement. In a 17-12 vote (Note: NBC reported the tally as 16-13 but the senate’s official minutes record 17-12), Vermont’s state senators passed a bill that will, if it passes the state House of Representatives as well, make their state the first on the East Coast to legalize cannabis and the first to legalize by legislative action rather than a voter referendum.
It is this latter fact that would make legalization in Vermont a crushing blow for prohibitionism. The second barrel of the gun will have been loaded, and both will be pointed directly at one of the most absurd traditions in American law. “The question is how many people use marijuana and don't destroy their lives? The answer is millions,” Sen. Dick McCormack (D) of Windsor County, who voted in favor of the bill, told the local NBC affiliate, WPTZ after the vote. “There are bad effects to using marijuana. But there are bad effects to watching too much television.”
On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Peg Flory of Rutland cast aside her party’s traditional love of state’s rights and took the opportunity to remind everyone present that cannabis was still illegal under federal law. The President Pro Tem of the senate, John Campbell, was on hand with a rather stock rendition of the classic “Will someone think of the children?” bit as he voiced his own opposition. Meanwhile, the bill was prepared for final approval, which it received on Thursday the 25th despite the stale protestations of the GOP. Now, the bill begins its move away from the Senate and down the hall to the House of Representatives, where it will first be heard by the House Judiciary Committee.
Though the Judiciary Committee has no meetings scheduled for the week of March 1, when the books are open on the bill (probably the week of March 14), it is expected by many to pass and move on to the governor’s desk, where it will find no opposition. “I want to thank the Senate for their courage in voting to end the failed war on drugs policy of marijuana prohibition,” Gov. Peter Shumlin told WPTZ, confirming what Vermont citizens already knew: their progressive governor would do everything in his power to end prohibition and allow Vermont to share in the unprecedented benefits seen in legal states that use cannabis tax revenue for schools and infrastructure.
S. 241, as the bill is now known, would allow for the issuing of grower licenses in 2017 and implement full legalization by January 1, 2018. Vermont residents would be able to buy up to a half ounce per transaction, while visiting residents of other states would be limited to a quarter. As the House begins its consideration of the bill, East Coast residents in favor of legalization watch with cautious optimism based on whisperings of a favorable vote. The Speaker of the House, Shap Smith, shares this optimism, but is unsure whether the timetable will make advocates of legalization happy. "Most people believe the policy we have in place now is not working," Smith told WPTZ Thursday. "I think the question that has to be answered is will the alternative that's come over from the Senate address the areas where the policy isn't working now? Whether we can fix it this year is an open question."