Vermont governor won’t sign marijuana bill, sends it back

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – Vermont Gov. Phil Scott says he won’t sign a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana in the state and is instead sending it back to the legislature with suggestions for another path forward.

The Republican governor said Wednesday that changes could be made to the bill in a special session this summer.

If Scott had decided to sign the bill, it would have made Vermont the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana. The District of Columbia has also legalized it.

The governor has previously said he’s not philosophically opposed to marijuana legalization but has concerns about safety.

Under the legislation, small amounts of marijuana would have been legal to possess and grow for anyone over age 21.

Gov. Scott issued these remarks:

Since the Legislature passed S.22 on May 10th, I have received a great deal of advice on this issue, and taken the time to fully understand what this legislation proposes to do. I have carefully weighed the advantages and disadvantages of this proposal in order to make my decision.

Opinions on marijuana legalization do not fall neatly along party; age; or geographic lines. Many Vermonters have strong feelings on this issue, and do not hesitate to voice them, both for and against.

I always try to listen to, and learn from, different points of view, and want to thank those who have taken the time to reach out over the past few weeks with their thoughts.

As I look at this matter, I generally view it through a libertarian lens. With that libertarian streak in me I believe what adults do behind closed doors and on personal property is their choice, so long as it doesn’t negatively impact the health and safety of others.

That’s why I’ve previously supported – and continue to support – medical marijuana laws and decriminalization.

I know we cannot ignore the fact that it is a widely-consumed substance, and many states – and an entire nation to our north – are in the process of making it legal.

I have been clear since the campaign and throughout the session: I am not philosophically opposed to ending the prohibition on marijuana, and I recognize there is a clear societal shift in that direction. However, I feel it is crucial that key questions and concerns involving public safety and health are addressed before moving forward.

We must get this right. Let the science inform any policy we make around this issue, learn from the experience of other states, and take whatever time is required to do so. In my view, policymakers have an obligation to all Vermonters – and those who visit us – to address health, safety, prevention and education questions before committing the state to a specific timeline for moving forward.

More specifically – as I have said repeatedly throughout the campaign and this session – we should know how we will detect and measure impairment on our roadways, fund and implement additional substance abuse prevention education, keep our children safe and penalize those who do not, and measure how legalization impacts the mental health and substance abuse issues our communities are already facing.

***

From my vantage point, S.22 does not yet adequately address these questions.

Therefore, I am returning this bill to the Legislature. I am, however, offering a path forward that takes a much more thorough look at what public health, safety and education policies are needed before Vermont moves toward a regulatory and revenue system for an adult-use marijuana market.

I’ll be providing the Legislature with recommended changes. And to be clear, if they are willing to work with me to address my concerns in a new bill passed during the veto session this summer, there is a path forward on this issue.

Those recommendations include the following:

First, in its attempt to equate marijuana with alcohol. This bill appears to weaken penalties for the dispensing and sale of marijuana to minors. Sections of this bill must be rewritten to make clear that existing penalties for the dispensing and sale of marijuana to minors and on school grounds remain unchanged.

Weakening these protections and penalties should be totally unacceptable to even the most ardent legalization advocates.

Second, I am asking for changes to more aggressively penalize consumption while driving, and usage in the presence of minors.

For example, this bill states that one cannot use marijuana in a vehicle. But, if an adult is smoking with a child in the car, there is only a small fine equal to the penalty for an adult having an open container of alcohol.

We must acknowledge that marijuana is not alcohol and it is not tobacco. How we protect children from the new classification of this substance is incredibly important.

This is not just a concern about impaired driving. According to the best science available, and our own Department of Health, secondhand marijuana smoke can negatively impact a child’s brain development. Therefore, if an adult is smoking marijuana in a car with a child – in my view – that should include a more severe punishment.

Third, the Marijuana Regulatory Commission section must be enhanced in order to be taken seriously. It must include a broader membership, including representatives from the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Health, the Department of Taxes, and the substance abuse prevention and treatment community.

The Commission must be charged with determining outcomes, such as an impairment threshold for operating a motor vehicle; an impairment testing mechanism; an education and prevention strategy to address use by minors; and a plan for continued monitoring and reporting on impacts to public health.

In its work to develop a regulated system, the Commission must also produce a detailed estimate of the General Fund revenue required for the adequate regulation, enforcement, administration, education and prevention recommendations it shall make.

As the bill currently stands, legislation for a regulated system would be introduced before the personal possession and cultivation laws have even changed. I believe, the Commission should be allowed to take more time to thoughtfully complete its work on this complex issue.

Given the gravity of this policy change, I would like to see the Commission have at least a year before making final recommendations.

I want to reiterate that we can all work together on this issue in a thoughtful and responsible way. I have already reached out to the Coalition of Northeastern Governors – or CONEG – last month to engage my colleagues in a discussion about creating a regional highway safety standard.

Information gathered and progress made with CONEG would be shared with the Commission to support the goals I’ve proposed.

If the Legislature agrees to make the changes I am seeking… we can move this discussion forward in a way that ensures the public health and safety of our communities and our children continues to come first.

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