The Vermont Legislature sent its marijuana legalization bill to the desk of Republican Gov. Phil Scott Thursday, initiating a five-day countdown during which Scott will have to decide whether to sign the legislation, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.
It’ll be one of the most closely watched decisions of Scott’s gubernatorial tenure, and he’s been inundated in recent days from both supporters and opponents of a bill that would legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, and allow Vermonters to grow up to two mature plants.
On Thursday morning, a group of doctors, law enforcement officials and substance abuse counselors held a press conference in the Statehouse. Their message was unambiguous.
“I say veto this bill, stay strong with health and safety,” said alcohol and drug counselor Margo Austin.
“We are hopeful that the governor will follow through on what he said he would do as a candidate, which is to veto legislation like this that lacks important considerations of public safety and education,” said child psychiatrist Dr. David Rettew. “We will be watching.”
Rettew says it’s uncomfortable taking such a public stand against the bill, in part because so many Vermonters support the legalization movement.
“And they view us as out-of-touch curmudgeons standing in the way of people wanting to have some harmless fun,” Rettew says.
Rettew, however, says he’s convinced that legalization will increase usage of a psychoactive drug he blames for adverse mental health effects, especially among children.
“This bill is a choice that pits individual freedom against negative health outcomes, and there simply is no way to sugarcoat your way out of this,” Rettew says.
Scott has heard from some high-profile constituencies urging him to veto the legalization bill. On May 4, the Vermont Association of Police Chiefs penned a letter urging him to reject the bill. Representatives of the Vermont Medical Society, Vermont American Academy of Pediatrics and Vermont Children’s Hospital have also expressed concern.
But proponents of legalization have come out in force as well. And it isn’t necessarily from stoners enthused by the idea of legal weed.
“In my view, those who oppose expansion of civil liberties consistently find themselves on the wrong side of history,” says Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill.
Cahill says prohibition has done little to stem the tide of marijuana abuse in Vermont, which has some of the highest teen usage rates in the nation. As for fears generally about the ill effects of cannabis, Cahill says, “that a separate issue apart from whether consenting adults should have the right to consume marijuana without fearing state interference.”
J. Wesley Boyd is a medical doctor in Massachusetts who supported that state’s legalization referendum. Boyd, a psychiatrist, says there’s no question that marijuana poses health threats to people who misuse it, especially children and young adults in their early 20s. But he says the dangers of the drug pale in comparison to alcohol and tobacco.
“And for me it comes down to a question of, do you really want to throw people in jail for using marijuana? Because if it remains illegal, that’s what’s on the table,” Boyd says.
Laura Subin is the director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, a group that has helped spearhead the legalization push in Montpelier. Subin says there isn’t a serious legalization advocate who isn’t worried about teen use.
But she says early data from Colorado, Washington and Colorado show no causal effect between legalization and increased rates among teens. And she says prohibition has proven itself an ineffective tool for harm-reduction.
“There is already a lot of marijuana in Vermont,” Subin says. “We know that about 80,000 people are using marijuana.”
Subin says legalization will, most importantly, undo a statute that has perpetuated inequities in the criminal justice system.
“The largest effect has been in communities of color and in lowest-income Vermont families,” Subin says.
At a press conference on Thursday, Scott offered mixed messages on what he plans to do with the legalization bill.
“I’ve said it along the campaign trail — I’m not philosophically opposed to it,” Scott said.
But, Scott says he doesn’t think Vermont should move forward until the state puts in place stronger highway safety measures.
“I’m not sure that the time is right now,” Scott says. “But I want to look at the bill.”
Now that it’s arrived on his desk, Scott will have an opportunity to begin that review.