Backers of a plan to legalize marijuana in Vermont have received some significant legislative support from House Speaker Shap Smith.
For more than a year, Smith has been undecided about this issue but now he says he'll work to pass a legalization bill in the 2016 session.
For months, Smith has taken a "wait and see" position concerning the legalization of marijuana. He said he wanted to remain undecided until Vermont lawmakers could closely evaluate the experience of Colorado and Washington, the two states that have legalized marijuana for more than a year.
Smith is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2016, and this legislation could be become a campaign issue.
Smith says he thinks it makes sense for Vermont to legalize marijuana if it can be done with a thoughtful approach.
"It's clear to me in my discussions with Vermonters that in general, the people in this state probably favor legalization,” Smith said on VPR's Vermont Edition on Aug. 28. “And I certainly believe that we can legalize marijuana if we do it right … we've seen what has happened in Colorado and Washington, and we can learn from their experiences."
Smith says he has two key concerns that need to be incorporated into any legalization bill next winter.
"I will support a bill to legalize marijuana if we make sure that we have very strong protections for people who are driving under the influence, to make sure that we can prosecute them,” Smith says, “and as long as we make sure that we have laws that keep marijuana out of the hands of kids."
Debby Haskins is the executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization. She thinks support for the idea in Vermont will begin to fall once lawmakers realize that large corporations will likely market their products to young people much like many companies do in the beer industry.
“Big Marijuana is no different. And I don’t know how we would ever stop a company that has billions of dollars from coming in here and advertising and bringing in the products. So we’re worried about our youth in Vermont, and the message we’re going to send to Vermonters,” Haskins says.
The Senate Government Operations committee plans to hold several public hearings on this issue in November.