MONTPELIER, Vt. — The Vermont Senate on Thursday voted to legalize recreational marijuana use and cultivation, defying federal law.
Despite warnings from law enforcement and members of the medical community, senators voted to permit residents age 21 and older to smoke marijuana purchased from growers and retailers licensed in the state.
The 17-12 vote put Vermont on track to become the fifth state in which recreational pot smoking is legal.
If approved by the House and signed by the governor, Vermont would join Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington state in openly disregarding federal law on recreational pot use. Since 1996, twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws allowing marijuana for medicinal use.
Under S.241, residents of Vermont may legally possess up to an ounce of cannabis. Nonresidents may possess one-quarter ounce of the plant without fear of arrest.
The bill could generate as much as $20 million annually for the state through a 25 percent tax on the plant.
“Marijuana legalization is a perfect example to show that states really can defy the feds and get away with it,” said Scott Landreth, spokesperson for the Tenth Amendment Center. The California-based think tank follows states that flout federal law.
“The federal government does not have the constitutional authority to ban the growing or sale of a plant,” he said. “When states defy that, not only are they exercising the Tenth Amendment, but they’re also affirming the commerce clause. You have no constitutional authority to ban a plant — period. But you certainly don’t have any authority to ban anything that’s grown, manufactured and sold within our borders.”
During Thursday’s session, senators passionately debated the health and safety implications of marijuana legalization.
“Will this bill make Vermont a healthier state, and will this bill make Vermont a safer state?” state Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, asked colleagues.
“We have a whole series of professional organizations outside our building on the public health and public safety side, and they are urging us not to proceed,” he said. “I would just ask us to consider those warnings. … I’m not sure this bill at this time is good medicine for the state of Vermont.”
State Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, objected that sanctioning recreational cannabis puts children at risk in their own homes.
“What we’re doing by passing this bill is we’re saying to adults it’s now legal for you to smoke pot. … We’re putting all those little kids at risk because they’re in a home where somebody is legally smoking pot. I think it’s a bad policy, I don’t think it makes people safer, and I don’t see for the life of me how it can possibly increase the health of Vermonters.”
State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who voted in favor of the bill, said his support was not an endorsement of smoking weed.
“I do not support the bill because marijuana is good for you. … I support the bill because I believe that we are better off with a tightly controlled regulated system.”
According to the bill amended and passed on Thursday, that system includes issuance of state licenses for a limited number of growers and sellers. Starting on or before June 15, 2017, the Department of Public Safety will begin to issue licenses to as many as 15 cannabis retailers and up to 27 cultivators in accordance with the size of the growing space.
Between July 2018 and July 2019, the department will double the amount of licenses available to businesses. After that, the department has discretion on the number of licenses to issue with the purpose of undercutting the illegal marijuana market.
Worries over legalization have ranged from concern about drugged driving and youth consumption to maintaining drug-free workplaces. Some wonder how lawmakers could endorse legalizing pot when anti-smoking ordinances and programs are on the rise.
Another concern is S.241’s conflict with federal law, which prohibits marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes.
Asked if states have authority to pass laws that violate federal law, state Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said, “The state cannot preempt federal law. Right now the current administration has chosen not to enforce it.”
Regarding pot legalization efforts, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy website states: “These state marijuana laws do not change the fact that using marijuana continues to be an offense under Federal law.
“It is important to note that Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) consistent with these determinations.”
Since 2013, state lawmakers have found cover for their actions in a memo from the Obama Justice Department — the so-called Cole memo. That memo, issued by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, says feds won’t enforce federal drug law against states that allow “possession of small amounts of marijuana and provide for the regulation of marijuana production, processing, and sale.”
Landreth says states are acting in groups to nullify federal laws on a range of polices, from the National Defense Authorization Act and gun control to NSA spying and treatments for terminally ill patients. States are even moving to block Common Core and federal license plate tracking.
“(Marijuana legalization) is the easiest example to cite because everybody realizes 23 states have defied the feds on this,” he said.
During the debate, Sears acknowledged the conflict with federal law, but took solace in the Cole memo.
“Much has been made of the fact that it’s still against federal law. … I maintain that, at least the word from the Cole memo and our attorney general of the United States of America, that we are better off with a tightly regulated market rather than a criminal enterprise run by the black market.”
S.241 now moves to the House, where it will taken up by House Judiciary Committee.
CORRECTION: An error in this story was corrected at 10:56 a.m. Vermont will begin issuing licenses on or before June 15, 2017, not starting in January 2018 as originally published.
Contact Bruce Parker at [email protected]