Republican Gov. Phil Scott has vetoed legislation that would have made Vermont the ninth state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana — and the first to do so by an act of the Legislature, as opposed to a ballot initiative.
Scott’s decision isn’t necessarily the end of the road for the legalization bill this year, however, and he says he’s open to signing a revised version of the legislation in June.
Opponents and supporters of the legalization effort had been waiting on tenterhooks since the bill arrived on the governor's desk last week. Scott has been non-committal about what he’d do with the bill, saying he’s “not ideologically opposed” to legalization, but that he has serious concerns about the impact of more permissive cannabis laws on highway safety.
Scott summoned reporters to a fifth-floor conference in the Pavilion building Wednesday to announce his decision.
The Republican governor said he has a strong and abiding Libertarian streak.
“I believe what adults do behind closed doors and on their own personal property, is their choice, so long as it doesn’t negatively impact the health and safety of others,” Scott said.
But Scott says that issue of health and safety, especially the health and safety of Vermont’s children, weighed foremost on his deliberations.
Scott says he believes legalization is inevitable at some point.
“And I recognize there is a clear societal shift in that direction. However, I feel it is crucial that key questions and concerns involving public safety and health are addressed before moving forward,” Scott said.
Scott believes many of those questions can be answered in relatively short order, and says he’s sent lawmakers a list of desired revisions.
“If they are willing to work with me to address my concerns with a new bill, passed during the veto session this summer, there is a path forward on this issue,” Scott says.
The legislation passed by lawmakers earlier this month would legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, and allow for cultivation of up to two mature cannabis plants. The legislation would not take effect until July of 2018.
The proposed tweaks Scott is seeking are relatively minor. He wants stiffer penalties for people caught smoking marijuana in a car with a child present. He also wants a more exhaustive study of the impacts of legalization, including “an education and prevention strategy to address use by minors, and a plan for continued monitoring and reporting on impacts to public health.”
Scott also has concerns about highway safety, and he wants a commission to come back with a proposal for marijuana impairment thresholds — and detection strategies — for more effective DUI enforcement.
But he says his highway safety concerns are related more to the commercialized cannabis market he sees coming down the pike in a few years than the plan passed by lawmakers this year.
“What you do behind closed doors in your own home, as long as you’re not affecting others, it’s OK. I get that,” Scotts says.
Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and one of the strongest advocates for legal weed in the Vermont Statehouse.
“I was expecting just an out and out veto, so I’m actually pleasantly surprised to hear there is a path forward,” Sears says.
Moretown Rep. Maxine Grad, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, says she spoke with the governor general counsel on Wednesday. Grad says she thinks Scott’s proposed revisions are very doable between now and June 21, when the Legislature returns to take up vetoed bills.
“I do see that there could be a path, and I’m encouraged that he wants to work with us,” Grad says. “I do think it’s going to need all of us, all parties working together.”
But procedural hurdles could torpedo the legislation, even if lawmakers and the governor do find consensus. The veto session is scheduled to last only two days. Sears says moving a bill through the legislative process in such short order would almost certainly require rules suspensions — rules suspensions that opponents of the bill aren’t inclined to support.
“My gut tells me that most of our members are opposed to legalization and will not be wanting to suspend rules,” says House Minority Leader Don Turner.
If Turner’s 53-member Republican caucus holds strong, it could stymie any rules suspension in the House, and potentially derail the legalization bill until at least next year.
Scott says he’s heard from both supporters and opponents of the bill in recent weeks.
The Vermont Association of Police Chiefs sent a letter to Scott on May 4, urging him to veto the legislation. Representatives of Vermont Medical Society, Vermont American Academy of Pediatrics and Vermont Children’s Hospital have also expressed concerns directly to the governor.
The House and Senate had been split on what kind legalization framework is best for Vermont. The Senate favors a “tax and regulate” approach, with licensed growers and state-sanctioned retail outlets.
The House, meanwhile, supported a law similar to one in place in Washington, D.C., which removes all criminal and civil sanctions for possession of small amounts of marijuana, but leaves in place prohibitions against sales and large growing operations.
Until recently, it appeared the two chambers would be unable to resolve those competing philosophies this year. But a late-session compromise bill — it would have adopted the House framework, but created a commission to study a tax and regulate approach — won support in both chambers.
While the Senate might have the votes to override the governor’s veto, the same is not true in the House, which passed the bill by a vote of 79 to 66. The House needs 100 votes to override a veto.
If Scott and lawmakers do move forward with a legalization bill, then Vermont would join Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California, Colorado, Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia as the only jurisdictions to have legalized recreational use of marijuana. Another 19 states have legalized medical marijuana.
Correction 12:51 p.m. The original version of this story incorrectly reported that Vermont would have been the seventh state in the country to legalize recreational marijuana. Vermont would have been the ninth.
Update 5:15 p.m. This story has been updated to include additional reporting.