JOINT VENTURES

Hippie Vermont Kills Legal Weed’s Buzz

Even with legislators (not voters) leading the way toward legalization in the liberal Green Mountain State, adult-use cannabis proved it’s hardly a shoo-in.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Many of my neighbors in Denver have already grown bored of legal weed.

It’s been here in Colorado for more than four years. We had a widespread network of medical dispensaries well before outright legalization and cannabis has occupied a sizable portion of our news cycle in that time.

My neighbors’ developing apathy is one of the reasons I love traveling through prohibitionist states, where the very concept of adult-use cannabis—and the mere thought of walking into a pot shop, flashing an ID, and strutting out with a variety of state-regulated buds, edibles, topicals, and extracts—still brings jealous smiles to friends’ faces.

But even then we’ve moved beyond an era where Americans are surprised at cannabis’ increasing legality. With two states going fully legal in 2012, another two (plus Washington, D.C.) in 2014, and four more in 2016, the legalization movement’s momentum is obvious.

That’s not to say the cannabis industry has grown into an unstoppable behemoth that will easily waltz to its goal of federal legalization in the next few years, as some activists and entrepreneurs predict.

An adult-use ballot initiative in Arizona narrowly failed on Election Day 2016, and D.C.’s recreational regulations allow for legal growing, possession, and consumption—but not the retail marijuana sales that have fueled the billions of dollars in state-legal revenue we’ve seen in recent years.

We witnessed another setback this week in Vermont, where Republican Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday vetoed legislation that would have made the Green Mountain State the ninth in the country to legalize adult-use cannabis.

If this late-May timing seems odd, given that all of the other state decisions to legalize retail pot came during November election seasons, there’s a very important reason for that. Before Scott stamped his veto, Vermont was poised to become the first state in the U.S. to legalize adult-use cannabis not by ballot initiative but by the legislative process.

So this is not regular Vermonters pushing for legal pot; rather, it’s Vermont lawmakers who got this legislation to the governor’s desk.

It’s a historic proposition that is proof of how far we’ve come in this important conversation on drug policy. But its ultimate failure also shows that even though the cannabis industry has made significant progress, its widespread legalization is far from a shoo-in in modern America.

In many ways, Scott’s veto has solidified the legalization limbo in which America now finds itself.

A clear majority of Americans have told pollsters they think marijuana should be legal, have tried cannabis before, and consider it socially acceptable. A clear majority also live in states that have access to legal marijuana, and a majority of U.S. states are governed by laws that consider cannabis a legitimate medicine.

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Yet there’s still the other 35-45 percent of the country that doesn’t support more liberal drug laws—including Vermont Gov. Scott, who vetoed this latest legislation even though it more closely resembled D.C.’s conservative and sales-less structure than Oregon’s model, which is built around the transactional sale of marijuana inside state-licensed shops.

It’s a well-known and even celebrated fact that Vermonters are quite familiar with cannabis. A recent Princeton Review ranking of America’s most marijuana-friendly colleges included three Vermont colleges in the Top 10, making the state the most represented on the list.

So the irony of the 420-friendly landscape is hardly lost on the locals. Vermont’s northern border is wholly shared with Canada, which is on track to become the second country in the world to implement a regulated recreational cannabis system. The state’s southern edge is entirely shared with Massachusetts, which is implementing its own retail pot economy—as is Maine, which is a mere 45-minute drive east from the state line.

But these 10,000-foot views provide an important and accurate perspective. Rather than assuming that cannabis legalization is a given, activists on each side of the weed issue were reminded this week that the battle is far from over—even in the home of the University of Vermont in Burlington (No. 5), Poultney’s Green Mountain College (No. 7), and Marlboro College in Marlboro (No. 8).

But there is still a silver lining for those students and other pro-legalization forces in Vermont: In vetoing the bill, Scott didn’t take the idea of legalization off the table completely. Instead he said he’d be up to work with the legislature to create a better bill, one that would implement tougher penalties for those who sell cannabis to minors and those caught driving under the influence.

“If the legislature agrees to make the changes I am seeking,” Scott said Wednesday, “we can move forward with this discussion in a way that ensures the public health and safety of our communities and our children continue to come first.”