In a representative government, more laws come from legislation than from voter referendum. In the rapidly-growing cannabis industry, it has often been the reverse: a ballot initiative is introduced by the public, and, if enough signatures are collected, the measure makes the ballot. This is how adult-use cannabis laws have entered all states where marijuana is now legal for adults 21 and older.
That is, except for Vermont.
The first state in the country to pass recreational pot purely thru the legislature, Vermont has opened their legal borders to a funny, versatile, and complex green plant without having to call on the 600,000+ residents to make the choice. Five years ago, when Colorado and Washington had their voters make a choice, it was because the state legislature couldn’t see the writing on the wall: people know marijuana prohibition doesn’t work. Bolstered even more by the intermittent stories of the unconventional, yet fantastically effective medical applications of marijuana, marijuana legalization has gained the support of more Americans than ever before, if only as a drug and a medicine.
Neighboring Massachusetts and Quebec, as well as nearby Maine, will all have fully legalized marijuana markets operational at some point in 2018. Given the regional tilt towards legalization, not only did lawmakers in Vermont take the opportunity to address the current and future regional cultural dynamics evolving around legal weed, they have begun to embrace the fiscal benefits, including items such as enforcement priorities and tax revenues.
As exciting as Vermont passing pot purely thru the legislature is, Governor Phil Scott (R) still has a choice to make: he can sign the bill, he can veto it, or he can let it slide across his desk, without a signature, into law. As passed by the House and Senate, SB 22 would allow state residents and visitors the following:
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Under the new law, adults 21 and older can possess up to one ounce (28 grams) of dried marijuana flower and up to five (5) grams of hashish or marijuana concentrate.
At Home Cultivation
Not only did Vermont pass pot purely thru their legislature, lawmakers 1up’d Washington state in their legal craft. In WA, recreational consumers cannot grow marijuana at home, yet under Vermont’s marijuana law adults 21 and up can grow as much as two mature, budding plants or as many as four immature, non-budding plants per residence.
Under SB 22, residents who choose to grow at home may exceed the possession limit as long as any excess is not brought into public. All amounts of harvested and usable marijuana in excess of an ounce must be kept at home. The law asks for all harvested marijuana to be kept reasonably protected from unwanted access (by kids, for instance).
While places like Las Vegas or New Orleans have passed laws allowing for alcohol consumption on the streets, no state has moved to completely allow marijuana use in a public setting. As a brown bag does for malt liquor, the smell of burnt or vaporized marijuana all but gives away you are not smoking a cigarette – another socially acceptable intoxicant.
Under SB 22, a public place is defined as:
- Any street,
- Any alley
- All parks & sidewalks
- Public buildings which are not apartments or other individual dwellings
- Motel, hotel, or any other place of public accommodation
- In or at any place where using tobacco is prohibited by law
Driving While Under the Influence
The changing attitudes surrounding marijuana use in the northeastern US has done little to impact policy regarding driving while intoxicated. The Vermont legislature may have passed pot purely thru Congress, yet Congress still sees marijuana consumption as a potential public health issue. This extends to how the state is approaching their rec market, including driving while intoxicated.
Marijuana use is still illegal while (a) in a car and (b) while driving. Adults may possess marijuana in a car, however, the marijuana must be kept away from the driver. This means you should store the marijuana in a place it is inconvenient to grasp while driving, such as the trunk or back seat.
The Creation of a New Governmental Agency
While much of the new law has been good news to marijuana consuming Vermonters, mirroring Massachusetts and Maine expected start date of July 2018, the timeline for implementation in Vermont is roughly 14-months away. In the next year, Vermont would be required to create the Marijuana Regulatory Commission, a governmental agency created to administer and oversee the recreational marijuana program, define tax rates, and create and enforce marijuana regulations. By August 1st, 2017, the commission is set to have their first policy meeting.
The commission will include:
- Two (2) current members of Vermont’s House of Representatives
- One member of the public appointed by the House Speaker
- Two (2) current members of the Senate
- One member of the public appointed by the Committee on Committees
- The Vermont Attorney General or their designee
- The Food and Markets Secretary of Agriculture or their designee
- One member appointed by the Governor
The Commission is tasked with developing the regulatory system. This includes how taxes will be applied, collected, and distributed as well as in what proportions the distributions will occur. Additionally, the regulatory system designed by the commission must not negatively affect public health and safety.
The Fines and Penalties
Becoming the first state to pass rec pot purely thru the legislature, Vermont has not only reviewed full prohibition for adults 21 and older, they have completely restructured how the state penalizes marijuana-related crimes. Some remain harsh, but most have been structured more favorably. Here’s what you should know:
Adults 21 and older
- Public Consumption:
- First offense: $100
- Second offense: $200
- Third and subsequent: $500
- Exceeding the possession limit & growing limit
- First offense: You’ll be asked to the participate in a Court Diversion Program unless the prosecutor states on the record why this would not serve justice. If this occurs, fines up to $500 and up to six (6) months imprisonment are possibilities.
- Second offense: A person caught growing more plant than legally allowed or in possession of more than one ounce of marijuana flower or five (5) grams of marijuana concentrate is subject to fines up to $2,000 and up to 24-months imprisonment
Individuals Under 21
- Possession or cultivation
- First offense: You’ll be referred to the Court Diversion Program, to be enrolled in the Youth Substance Abuse Safety Program. Failing to complete the program results in a $300 fine and a 30-day suspension of driving privileges.
- Second Offense: Fines up to $600 and as much as a three (3) months suspension of your driver’s license.
In fact, adults providing marijuana to individuals under 21 remain one of the most legally treacherous things a person could do with regard to marijuana under the new law. For instance, someone caught knowingly providing marijuana to a minor is subject to two years imprisonment and fines up to $2,000. If the minor happens to hurt their self or others, the person who furnished the marijuana is also liable through the law for civil damages (such as medical bills, automotive repairs, etc..)
The Changing Tide
Through the legislature, Vermont passed pot without the votes of the direct population and, in so doing, has created a program which embodies the cultural shift. These legislators have steered toward a productive, growth-orientation rather than a limiting, hesitant approach, as seen in medical marijuana states where the legislature passed restrciting laws. New York passed medical marijuana through the legislature, for instance, and the program doesn’t allow smoked marijuana.
Does this represent a change in how state representatives, often older and calibrated by decades of prohibitive canna-slander, view marijuana? Is Vermont going to be the first and the last state to pass recreational through congress? Probably not. As more and more states come online with their rec programs, lawmakers across the globe are getting to see what works and what doesn’t, and Vermont, it seems, is the first group of lawmakers to heed the progress of cannabis regulation present in Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, and Oregon and pass their own.