Pot Is Now Legal In Massachusetts. How Goes The Effort In Vermont?

Dec 15, 2016

Vermonters will soon be a short drive away from easy access to legal marijuana in Massachusetts, and proponents of legalization in Vermont say it’s a game-changer for the legislative debate in Montpelier.

Even with a Democratic governor pushing for their cause, proponents of marijuana legalization couldn’t get a bill passed during the last legislative session. With the inauguration of a Republican governor who’s less than enthusiastic about a legal cannabis law, it might seem like chances of passage would be even slimmer in 2017.

Laura Subin, director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, says prospects, in fact, are bright.

“I think that we do have a real viable pathway to getting it done this year,” Subin says.

Subin’s optimism springs in part from the cannabis legalization law that began to take effect in Massachusetts on Thursday, thanks to a ballot initiative passed by voters in the Bay State last month. Retail sales won’t be allowed for some time, but they’re no doubt coming.

“There was some anxiety about being first on the East Coast, and what would happen if there was suddenly a huge influx of people coming from these neighboring states to Vermont to access legalized marijuana,” Subin says. “And now the concern sort of flips on its head and the question is, will Vermonters be going to Massachusetts to access legalized marijuana anyway?”

"There was some anxiety about being first on the East Coast ... And now the concern sort of flips on its head." — Laura Subin, Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana director

Massachusetts isn’t the only New England state taking the plunge – voters in Maine approved a legalization referendum in November as well. 

The Vermont Senate passed a legalization bill in the 2016 session, but the legislation stalled in the House.

Moretown Rep. Maxine Grad, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, says she plans to move resume the push for legalization in 2017. She says the intervening developments in Massachusetts and Maine have altered many legislators’ thinking on the issue.

Some compelling voices, like Margo Austin, a student assistance program counselor at Burlington High School, will try to convince them otherwise. 

“There’s no other drug, frankly, in my professional opinion, having done this for close to 25 years, that’s more rationalized, revered and misunderstood by adolescents,” Austin says.

Austin is also a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, and she says she’s gleaned some useful insights into the issue of cannabis abuse during her years on the job.

Austin is part of a coalition called smart Approaches to Marijuana that will be urging lawmakers against legalization. She says there are three factors that play into how many young people use any drug. 

"If another state does something where we think that it's really going to put our population more at risk for health and safety, I don't understand why we would want to duplicate that." — Margo Austin, Approaches to Marijuana

“It’s availability, it’s the perception of harm, and it’s legalization – what are the laws around the drug?” Austin says.

Austin says legalization will inevitably lead to higher rates among youth, and she says laws in Massachusetts aren’t a sound rationale for altering policies here.

“If another state does something where we think that it’s really going to put our population more at risk for health and safety, I don’t understand why we would want to duplicate that,” Austin says.

Matt Simon, New England director at the Marijuana Policy Project, says he has that answer.

“So that [Vermont] could reap the benefits of job creation, economic development, and having a revenue stream to spend on prevention, education, treatment, et cetera,” Simon says.

"[Vermont] could reap the benefits of job creation, economic development, and having a revenue stream to spend on prevention, education, treatment, et cetera." — Matt Simon, Marijuana Policy Project New England director

Simon says fears about the link between legalization and increased usage among youngsters is unfounded.

According to the fact-checking organization Politifact, experts say it’ll be many years before statisticians will be able to tease out any meaningful correlations between legalization and usage rates among youth.

In the meantime, Simon says Vermont can take steps to root out an underground marijuana economy.  

“This is a real opportunity to take hundreds of millions of dollars – certainly tens of millions of dollars in Vermont – out of the illicit drug market and put it into a regulated market where there are consumer protections,” Simon says.

Legalization advocates will have to overcome the objections of Governor-elect Phil Scott in the process. Scott says he isn’t necessarily opposed to legalization in the long run. But he says he wants to see what happens in states like Massachusetts before Vermont moves forward.