Twice now in the past year, Vermont residents have watched and waited as state lawmakers have drafted bills that would legalize cannabis for adult use, only to fall short due to conflicting ideas on how it should be implemented by the state Senate, House and now the governor.
In that same stretch of time, Vermont’s medical marijuana program, which has some of the most restrictive regulations in the country, has seen an increase in both patient participation and qualifying conditions, as well as the promise of future expansion.
But with polls showing the majority of residents support recreational cannabis in Vermont, many inside and outside of the state are asking, “What happened?”
With just hours left to either sign, veto or let the legalization bill pass into law without his signature, Governor Phil Scott struck down the bill, stating that his concerns about public safety and health need to be addressed before he is willing to move forward with legalization.
“We must get this right,” Scott said in a press release following his decision. “Let the science inform any policy we make around this issue, learn from the experience of other states and take whatever time is required to do so. In my view, policymakers have an obligation to all Vermonters — and those who visit us — to address health, safety, prevention and education questions before committing the state to a specific timeline for moving forward.”
But Scott’s decision to veto the bill doesn’t mean lawmakers and advocates necessarily need to start over. Discussion on cannabis legalization will resume during the summer veto session beginning June 21.
“It could have been a lot worse,” says Matt Simon, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Simon has been working on legislative reform in Vermont since 2013. Through four years of medical breakthroughs and adult-use disappointments, he remains surprisingly affable even one day after the governor’s decision to veto the bill.
“Well, obviously, we’d prefer it if he signed the bill,” Simon says, but points out that the summer session keeps the issue alive. “We were assuming that with a veto we were dead until January.”
Scott says he’ll be providing the Legislature with recommended changes, adding that if lawmakers are willing to work with him to address his concerns, “there is a path forward on this issue.”
Among those recommendations, Scott said he would like to see aggressive penalties for “consumption while driving, and usage in the presence of minors” and that the penalties for illegal sales remain unchanged. He has called for the Marijuana Regulatory Commission to conduct further studies into the impact of legalizing marijuana in Vermont on multiple levels.
“I am not sure what more information could be gathered, other than the real-world examples coming (from) out West and now potentially from Maine and Massachusetts,” says Shayne Lynn, operator of Champlain Valley Dispensary and Southern Vermont Wellness, two of the state’s four licensed medical dispensaries. “They have been talking about this for four years.”
Even Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman expressed his displeasure regarding Scott’s veto.
“I am sad to see the Governor disregard the will of most Vermonters and reduce individual liberties in our state,” Zuckerman said in a statement. “Prohibition has failed and causes approximately 100,000 Vermonters to be labeled lawbreakers. Vermont is now lagging behind other states in the region and is missing opportunities to capture revenue from an underground market that would allow us to address highway safety, drug education and treatment, and other needed state investments to reduce the temptation of drug use. For the Governor to veto this bill over the makeup of the commission seems very short sighted.”
In a poll leading up to Scott’s decision to veto the bill, roughly 57% of the state’s roughly 627,000 residents said they support marijuana legalization. Simon says the majority of Vermont’s population and government leans left, but with a libertarian streak that can make legislative cooperation somewhat difficult to achieve. This recent failure was the second time Vermont has come painfully close to making history as the first state to legalize cannabis without a voter initiative. A bill passed by the Senate in 2016 was considered too restrictive by the House of Representatives. The new bill, designed to alleviate those concerns, was approved by both the Senate and House in 2017, but was ultimately viewed as too open-ended by Scott.
“As I look at this matter, I generally view it through a libertarian lens,” Scott said. “That’s why I’ve previously supported — and continue to support — medical marijuana laws and decriminalization.”
But while the vetoed bill would have allowed for home-growing and possession of up to an ounce of flower by adults over 21, medical operators question where a bill like that would leave the state’s medical program.
What about medical?
Despite its recent recreational failures, Vermont’s medical program has seen growth in both patient participation and qualifying conditions, as well as incorporating the statewide delivery program that was approved in 2014.
Vermont legalized medical marijuana in 2004, but dispensaries didn’t open their doors for another eight years. At that time, only about 600 patients were registered.
When Alex Ford opened Grassroots Vermont in 2013, only 43 patients were registered with her dispensary. Grassroots Vermont now has about 550 registered patients and the state has about 4,000 total.
Increasing those numbers are Ford’s top priorities.
“Vermont has always seen this program as a last resort, which is unfortunate,” Ford says.
When delivery began in early 2016, Ford had about 250 patients registered at her dispensary — a number that has now more than doubled. She believes the growing patient rolls came from adding chronic pain and glaucoma to the state’s qualifying conditions, reducing the wait times to qualify for a medical card and the delivery program.
“Delivery has been a huge aspect for patients,” she says. “I think we have one of the most robust and expansive delivery programs. We go anywhere in the state and the most we charge is $20. It’s helpful to get our name and product out there to let some patients know that there are some choices and that they are not stuck with geographically what is in their neighborhood.”
With new medical marijuana legislation awaiting the governor’s signature, Ford remains optimistic that the program will be improved further.
The bill, S. 16, would allow medical operators to convert to for-profit entities, open a second dispensing location and expand qualifying conditions to include Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease and PTSD.
“We are such a small state and such a small group that the legislators really do listen to us,” Ford says. “Our building is 7,000 square feet and we still have a lot of room to grow within that. We grow in 10-by-20-foot pods. We’re looking at moving into a situation where we can have double of what we are doing now.”
As Ford carefully plans expansion, Lynn and Simon continue to weigh how recreational legalization might impact the current medical program.
“How do we participate and ensure that we have access to those opportunities and make sure that the medical program is not forgotten about for a whole bunch of reasons?” Lynn asks. “Because we need to have a separation between adult usage and medical.”
Third time’s a charm?
There’s still a chance that adult use legalization could happen in the coming months.
“The governor is saying, ‘let’s try and do it this summer,’ on the veto session that starts June 21,” Simon says. “If the governor is serious and is committed to championing this then it should be doable.”
The changes proposed by Scott range from specifics like keeping the existing penalties for selling cannabis to a minor on school property to open-ended ideas like social research and drawing out a longer time frame to collect data on the impacts of legalization.
“If the Legislature agrees to make the changes I am seeking, we can move this discussion forward in a way that ensures the public health and safety of our communities and our children continues to come first,” Scott said in his press release.
According to Simon, there are a number of vehicles that the governor could use to propel legalization forward. Making compromises on existing Senate and House bills could work, provided that they are not so different that new concerns arise. Or a new bill could be drafted altogether, but that would take more time and amendments before it passes.
“The governor even mentioned that it could, conceivably, be worked into the budget,” Simon says.
Scott said his concerns focus on how the state plans to keeping its highways safe and how police will detect impaired drivers; funding and implementing additional substance abuse prevention and education; child safety and aggressive measure against those who impede it; and measuring how adult-use cannabis would impact the current epidemic of substance abuse and mental health Vermont is currently facing.
“The biggest hurdle isn’t the details, it’s probably the procedure,” Simon says, adding that the Marijuana Policy Project is drawing up specific suggestions based on Scott’s comments.
As that happens, the state’s medical operators, who are finally on the cusp of becoming profitable, ponder their future role within the state.
“We want to make sure we survive,” Lynn says. “We also want to be involved in the adult usage side, because obviously, it’s going to be a huge marked and we don’t want to get run over by that marketplace.”
Simon, however, remains focused on doing everything he can to appease the Senate, House and governor’s concerns in order to end prohibition in Vermont.
“If it doesn’t work out in this veto session then we are, basically, going to be angry,” he says. “He has the chance to be a hero. We’d like to see him take it.”