Republican Gov. Phil Scott said on Wednesday he will veto legislation that would have made Vermont the ninth state to legalize marijuana.
"We must get this right," Scott said during a Wednesday press conference. "I think we need to move a little bit slower. I'm not sure the time is right now," Scott said.
Wednesday was the deadline for Scott to make a decision on the bill — if he didn't plan on vetoing, the bill would have become law with or without his signature.
Scott said he would send the bill back to Vermont's legislature with suggestions to strengthen the bill, potentially setting up a fight in Vermont's legislature over specific language for prosecuting individuals selling to minors, as well as figuring out a strategy to restrict and penalize driving under the influence of marijuana. Changes could come to the bill as soon as this summer in a special session.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law, though eight states have passed laws to regulate the drug's commercial sale.
The bill, S.22, would have made Vermont the first state to pass marijuana legalization through the legislature, rather than voter initiative. The bill would have eliminated penalties for individuals possessing one ounce of marijuana or less, and allowed adults over the age of 21 to grow up to two plants in their home. The bill would have further created a nine-person commission to study the best way to tax and regulate marijuana in the future.
While Scott has said he isn't "philosophically opposed," to marijuana legalization, he urged that better protections against impaired driving — including a roadside test — be written into the language of the bill. He added that the bill doesn't do enough to protect children from "edibles," which are food products containing THC or CBD, active chemical compounds in marijuana.
Creating a roadside test to gauge THC impairment is still an evolving science, however. Though some companies are developing breathalyzers for THC, there is no consensus on a legal limit for the amount of marijuana in a person's system that impairs driving.
While marijuana advocates expressed disappointment with Scott's decision, some were encouraged by Scott's willingness to engage with state legislators on the issue.
"While the news today is disappointing, it likely just amounts to a short delay," said Tom Angell, the founder of Marijuana Majority. "The governor's comments make clear that legalization of marijuana in Vermont is only a matter of time — and some small tweaks to the bill."
"The fact that a bill even ended up on the governor's desk signals a new phase of the marijuana legalization movement," Angell added.
Matt Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project— which lobbied for the bill — said the bill is a "huge leap forward" for the marijuana legalization movement.
"The passage of S. 22 demonstrates most members of both legislative chambers are ready to move forward with making marijuana legal for adults," Simon said. "Lawmakers have an opportunity to address the governor’s concerns and pass a revised bill this summer, and we are excited about its prospects."
Kevin Sabet, the director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana — which publicly opposed to bill — commended Scott's decision to veto the legislation. In Sabet's view, the bill was a "gateway" to the commercialization of marijuana in Vermont.
"But our work is not over. There will be a special session next month to discuss a path forward," Sabet said, adding that SAM "will be working very closely with our allies," to ensure that any piece of marijuana legislation "does not allow Big Marijuana to come to Vermont."
A New York Times editorial urged Scott to sign the bill on Wednesday morning, writing that a veto would encourage Vermont residents to drive across the border to Maine and Massachusetts, where marijuana was recently legalized, or rely on black market dealers.
Recent polls show 57% of Vermont residents support allowing adults over the age of 21 to consume, possess, and grow marijuana, and 54% support changing the state's laws to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol.
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