By Bruce Parker and Michael Bielawski | True North Reports
MONTPELIER, Vt. — For the second time in 12 months, pot smokers in the Green Mountain State watched their dreams of legally possessing and growing marijuana go down in flames.
On Wednesday, Republican Gov. Phil Scott announced his veto of S.22, a bill that would have let an estimated 80,000 pot smokers possess an ounce of marijuana and grow two mature pot plants — enough green stuff to produce almost 5,000 joints within four months.
“I am not philosophically opposed to ending the prohibition on marijuana and I recognize there is a clear societal shift in that direction,” Scott said at a midday news conference in Montpelier. “However, I feel it is crucial that key questions and concerns involving public safety and health are addressed before moving forward.”
Scott said decisions on the issue would need to be informed by sound science and observation of results in the eight states that recently legalized pot. Before Vermont can legalize marijuana, Scott added, “policymakers have an obligation to all Vermonters, and those who visit us, to address health, safety, prevention and education questions.”
Such questions include how the state will detect and deter drugged driving, how to keep legal marijuana from ending up in the hands of kids, and how to gauge the impact of additional substance abuse on a state that has seen opioid-related deaths rise from 76 to 105 in a single year in Chittenden County alone.
“From my view, S.22 does not yet adequately address these questions. Therefore, I am returning this bill to the Legislature,” the governor said.
For pro-marijuana lawmakers who worked tirelessly to get S.22 approved, Scott said there was yet “a path forward.” That path involves adopting his recommendations for a new bill, to be considered as soon as the upcoming veto session in June.
The governor’s recommendations include maintaining tough penalties for selling pot to minors, increasing penalties for driving stoned and smoking around minors, and staffing a Marijuana Regulatory Commission with representatives from the Public Safety Department, Health Department, Tax Department and substance abuse and prevention community.
“We must acknowledge that marijuana is not alcohol and it is not tobacco. How we protect children from the new classification of this substance is incredibly important,” Scott said.
Importantly, Scott also demanded that lawmakers produce estimates of the General Fund revenue necessary to carry out marijuana legalization in the state. That means producing fiscal notes for new regulation, enforcement, administration, education and prevention functions of state government.
Reaction to Scott’s veto ranged from cheers to jeers.
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, an ardent supporter of legalization, criticized the governor’s decision.
“The propaganda around cannabis use has clearly taken hold in the governor’s office because the statistics are very clear that the states with cannabis laws, both medical and recreational, on average have lower highway fatality rates than states without,” Zuckerman told True North.
He said getting marijuana off the black market should keep it away from kids, not make it easier to access.
“We have real opportunity here to reform our cannabis laws to both protect our youth, reduce teen access through a regulated marketplace and support better drug treatment facilities and higher economic opportunities. And vetoing this bill continues to set us back,” Zuckerman said.
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group opposed to legalization, praised the veto.
“We commend Governor Scott for vetoing S.22 and backing parents, teachers, doctors and law enforcement across Vermont who are working each day to make our communities healthier and safer,” he told True North.
“Vermont already decriminalized marijuana years ago — this bill was designed to be a gateway for the full-scale commercialization of another drug in Vermont.”
Sabet added that his organization will keep a close eye on the special session next month. In particular, he said he will be on the lookout for any action by lawmakers that would allow “Big Marijuana to come to Vermont.”
Wednesday’s events may have felt like déjà vu all over again for legalization advocates. In May 2016, exactly one year ago, the Vermont House voted down a similar bill by a vote of 121-28, even after the Senate approved a comprehensive regulatory structure to grow, sell and tax marijuana in retail outlets starting in 2018.
During that debate on the House floor, lawmakers reviewed data from Vermont State Police that said two pot plants could produce more than 4 pounds of marijuana in 120 days, leading to as many as 4,830 joints.
Bruce Parker is a managing editor and staff writer for True North Reports. Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports.