The panic surrounding Jeff Session’s ominous January decision to revoke the Cole Memo that protected state-legal cannabis operations buried yet another groundbreaking moment in cannabis history. On the same day, January 4th, Vermont became the first state to legalize cannabis through their legislature. All of the eight other states that have legalized have done so through voter-approved ballot initiatives, effectively bypassing lawmakers. Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed the measure into law the following week, and it will go into effect July 1st.
However, unlike the voter-approved measures in other states, Vermont’s bill is stopping short, for the moment, of setting up a regulatory framework for sales. Adults over 21 will be allowed to possess an ounce of flower or five grams of hash, and can grow two mature, or four immature plants, at home. But we won’t see recreational stores – at least, not yet.
Governor Scott, a Republican, said when he signed the bill into law:
"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."
However, Scott said he would veto legislation if it tried to go further to allow sales, without first taking specific steps to prevent young people from using cannabis, and to prevent any negative impact on traffic safety. He also noted that he signed the bill with “with mixed emotions.”
Kevin Sabet, who leads the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, (and who has apparently become the default source for anti-cannabis quotes in recent articles about legalization) tried to portray the lack of sales in the bill as a blow to the legalization movement. He said, in an email to the Hill:
“By signing this, the Governor essentially killed any chance of full legalization. In so many ways, this is a big setback for the pot industry. Vermont will be off-limits to them for the foreseeable future.”
And in an era in which cannabis stores can now be found in some of America’s largest cities, it is tempting for cannabis advocates to share Sabet’s view, and see the development as disappointing to full legalization efforts. But, that would miss the bigger picture.
Proposals to delay the bill’s consideration, given the changes to federal enforcement policy, were voted down, in a direct rebuke to Sessions. With the passage of the bill, 1 in 5 Americans will live in a state with legal cannabis. This is surely not the final word on regulated sales in Vermont either. Governor Scott has used an executive order to create a commission to research how regulated sales would impact the state. Despite some saying the commission may be biased against sales, many hope a taxation and regulation system could pass during next year’s legislative session.
Most importantly, it can’t be overstated how groundbreaking it is for a state government to approve such a measure – particularly by such large margins (81 to 63), and with bipartisan support. The move sets an important precedent for states such as New York, New Hampshire, and New Mexico which have shown signs of moving in such a direction - as well as New Jersey, whose new governor pledged to legalize cannabis in his first hundred days in office. While legal cannabis may still be controversial among the old guard, hardline right wing which Jeff Sessions represents, it is an issue that is becoming ever more palatable for the bipartisan political center. As with much of the northeast, the opioid crisis has not been kind to Vermont. With research showing that legal cannabis reduces fatal overdoses, hospitalization, and traffic accidents, this factor may be playing a substantial role in an increased acceptance of cannabis by the political establishment in these areas.
It’s a very strange time to be a cannabis advocate. The path to normalization and legalization has been surprisingly steady, even alongside the federal government’s attention hogging lurch to the right since November of 2016. In the same way that California’s historical vote to become the most populous state to legalize cannabis was easily missed in national news alongside the election of Donald Trump, Vermont’s history-making legalization received less attention in January than Jeff Sessions’ so far inconsequential decision to revoke the Cole Memo.
It’s important to remember that federal politics in the US has a historical tendency to swing back and forth at regular intervals, with one step forward and two steps back. However, the bigger picture of cultural change can be seen in the background, as local and state politics continue the steady, albeit quiet, march of progress.