2,236.8 miles from Durango, 19 days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo, an Obama administration holdover concerning federal enforcement of the law concerning cannabis in states where it has been legalized, Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont signed his state’s legalization bill into law. It was the first time that a state has sanctioned recreational marijuana use through the standard lawmaking process.
The Green Mountain State joins Colorado, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Maine, and its neighbor Massachusetts in the growing cohort of states rapidly becoming the focus of eyes from coast to coast as the conflicts between state and federal policy present themselves in ever-sharper contrast. Like Colorado, every other state on the list of recreational locales except Vermont gave citizens the right to grow and use cannabis without a physician’s recommendation only as a result of citizen-initiated referenda.
The program being set up in Vermont will have a different vibe from that here in Colorado, at least in the beginning. Vermont’s legislation, which goes into effect on July 31, calls for the right of adults over the age of 21 to carry up to 1 ounce of dried flower and grants the ability to grow two mature and four immature plants, but there is no current provision enabling a commercial retail sales system. The potential next step of an open and regulated market for the distribution of the herb is being explored and examined by an advisory board appointed to study the topic and to report back to Gov. Scott by Dec. 15.
This is not the first go-round for cannabis legislation in Vermont. Scott, just last year, vetoed the bill, citing public safety issues in the areas of impaired driving and child protection. The passage of this law in Vermont creates an interesting dynamic in the New England region where half the states – Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts – have now legalized and the remaining three – Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire – do not have provisions for citizen initiatives and would need their legislators to craft and pass bills that would go to their respective governors for approval. Traditionally, “social experiment” laws like expanded liquor sales, state-run lottery systems, and casino sanctioning have traversed domino-effect movement across the region after one or two states enact them and lay the groundwork for other states to follow suit.
Another compelling offshoot created by yet another state’s decision to legalize cannabis is the tension building between these states and Sessions’ Department of Justice. The Cole Memo advises federal prosecutors to ignore the letter of the law with regard to enforcement of statutes as long as the operators of cannabis-centered companies in states where it has been legalized followed certain parameters, including blocking cannabis access to children, not being involved with organized crime, and refraining from crossing state lines with their products – conditions that have been met by an overwhelming majority of operators.
Other than keeping consistent with his traditional prohibitionist stance, it is unclear what the attorney general’s endgame might be in this business. It is clear that with an expanding number of states with legal cannabis programs – be it medical or recreational – and a growing percentage of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, who support legalization, something has to give. For now, let’s sit back, spark one, and welcome Vermonters to the club.
Christopher Gallagher lives with his wife and their four dogs and two horses. Life is pretty darn good. Contact him at [email protected].