MONTPELIER — After years spent softening the public image of recreational marijuana drug use, pot advocates finally scored a victory in Vermont on Monday with Gov. Phil Scott signing legislation that legalizes possession, use and cultivation of marijuana by adults.
Scott signed H.511 into law out of the public eye, and just in time for the self-imposed legislative deadline of midnight. The Republican governor’s action means Vermont is the first state in the union to legalize marijuana through the legislative process by the General Assembly.
“I personally believe that what adults do behind closed doors and on private property is their choice, so long as it does not negatively impact the health and safety of others, especially children,” Scott said in a statement.
The law allows for cultivation of two mature pot plants on private property and eliminates penalties of public possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. While the law allows for storage of unlimited amounts of pot, public consumption continues to be illegal. The law goes into effect July 1.
Scott’s decision not to turn the signing into a public media event appears to be politically calculated, serving to blunt criticism from his increasingly vocal political base, notably the law enforcement community which supported his candidacy for governor in 2016.
The choice to support and approve marijuana legalization may have cost him considerable political capital, especially among supporters such as police officers.
Both House and Senate passed H.511 soon after the Legislature reconvened for the 2018 session. Some skeptical voters and media commentators wondered why a recreational pot bill was among the first things lawmakers tackled in the new year when bigger public concerns exist such as the budget gap and the opioid addiction crisis.
Legislators speak out
State Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, told True North she didn’t like how quickly lawmakers ignored her concerns about safety issues and moved to approve the legislation.
“I voted for all of the amendments and (ultimately) against the bill,” Donahue said. “The penalties for smoking with children in the room was my proposed amendment. … There are no penalties in the bill and no references to the use of marijuana with children present. This proposal would have created a penalty, the same penalty as for smoking in a car with kids present, for smoking in other enclosed spaces.”
“I just think that if we agree that there should be a clear public policy message that this is being legalized as an adult activity, that we are not going to impose sanctions for adult use, then we should make it clear that the state does not think it’s OK to have children present while using marijuana,” she added.
Rep. Bob Bancroft, R-Westford, a vocal opponent of the governor’s push for legalization, made no bones about his position on Vermont’s new marijuana law.
“Being a social moderate with a fairly broad libertarian streak, I would likely have supported legalization if I was not a legislator,” he said. “(But) as an elected representative, I have a duty to evaluate the social and economic cost and benefits of proposed legislation. My personal opinion is subservient to the best interest of the residents of this state.”
Bancroft said he has heard from hundreds of constituents on the issue, with the majority opposing legalization. He also heard from many experts whose testimony went largely ignored under the Golden Dome.
“I heard from scores of physicians, medical researchers, educators, law enforcement officials and drug treatment professionals. With the exception of two individuals, they were adamantly opposed to legalization,” he said.
“I simply could not ignore their advice and information they provided to support their warnings. They convinced me that there is going to be significant costs to society from legalization. These costs will come about with increases in traffic deaths and injuries, emergency care visits, and mental psychosis. I am afraid our youths will bear a disproportionate share of the negative consequences.”
Law enforcement opposition
From Vermont’s law enforcement sector came words of betrayal following Scott’s signing H.511 into law.
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, president of the Vermont Police Association, is an outspoken opponent of legalizing marijuana for recreational use. The group, along with the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police and the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association, have been cautioning state lawmakers to go more slowly on the issue of legalization.
“None of us are happy with the state … (legalizing) marijuana,” Merkel told TNR. “There are a number of concerns we have about legalization. Certainly the one that jumps out most is the highway safety consideration, especially in light of an uptick, unfortunately, in highway fatalities. A good proportion of these incidents involved drugs (including marijuana).”
A doctor’s advice ignored
Ken Finn, a medical doctor from Colorado who passionately opposed pot legalization there, became an interstate voice against legalizing marijuana in Vermont. Finn, a member of the Colorado Governor’s Task Force on Amendment 64 — the amendment which legalized marijuana in Colorado — has written several commentaries in the Vermont news media recently against legalizing pot here, especially after widely publicized problems in the Centennial State. He was unhappy with H.511 being signed into law.
“Marijuana-related driving fatalities on Colorado roads continues to increase,” Finn said. “The recent loss of five innocent lives in (Bridport, Vermont) … to impaired driving should be a wakeup call to Vermonters that adding another legal drug to the mix is simply not a good idea.”
According to Finn, one example of the toll legal pot has taken on his state is a hospital in Colorado Springs which, he claimed, lost over $20 million health care dollars between 2009 and 2014. “This was due to marijuana-related ER visits,” he said.
Finn added that while he believes cannabinoids have promise in the field of medicine,”let science rather than public opinion (and politics) determine what is best.”
Regarding a possible commercial tax and regulate system for marijuana in the future, Scott said there “must be comprehensive and convincing plans” regarding education, prevention and highway safety strategies developed by lawmakers.
“It is important for the General Assembly to know that – until we have a workable plan to address each of these concerns – I will veto any additional effort along these lines, which manages to reach my desk.”
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.