Vermont is poised to become the first state to legalize cannabis through its legislature, rather than the ballot box. House Bill 170 narrowly passed the house early last month, the bill would all legalize possession of up to an ounce of cannabis and growing up six plants (2 mature, 4 immature) by people 21 and older.
Matt Simon is the New England Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and on the staff of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana (VCRM). The coalition represents individuals and organizations around the state favoring reform.
I met Mr. Simon in 2007, while he was the executive director for the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy. Since working with MPP, he’s made progress in both states. He was significantly involved in the successful 2013 campaign for Vermont’s decriminalization law and that same year led the efforts to allow medical marijuana in New Hampshire.
Last month, Republican Governor Phil Scott vetoed HB 170, and sent recommendations back to the legislature. I talked with Simon about what comes next.
Bailey Hirschburg: You’ve had some experience helping Vermont to decriminalize marijuana in 2013, and lobbying for reform in neighboring New Hampshire. How did those efforts impact your group’s ability to make progress on legalization this year?
Matt Simon: MPP has been involved in Vermont since roughly 2002. We campaigned for the medical marijuana law, which passed in 2004, and then for the bill that added dispensaries in 2007. We pushed for the decriminalization bill that passed in 2013, and this year we were pleased to see the legislature finally include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a qualifying medical condition. The reforms we championed have worked well and haven’t led to the problems that critics warned about, which is why I think most legislators now take us very seriously. At this point, the only complaints he hear about Vermont’s marijuana policy reforms are that they haven’t yet gone far enough.
[Following this interview, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed Senate Bill 16 into law. As well as PTSD, the bill adds Parkinson’s and Crohn’s disease, allows expanded dispensary locations, personal cultivation rights for patients, among other changes.]
BH: States that have legalized marijuana so far have done it at the ballot box. What were the main differences in how you lobby a legislature versus the general public?
MS: It’s completely different. By nature it’s a slow and deliberate process. One reason is that lawmakers hear from a loud minority of the public who are eager to call or complain, while supporters of reform are sometimes reluctant to speak their minds. Another reason is that elected officials tend to be an older demographic than the general voting public, and many have close relationships with law enforcement leaders and other opponents of reform. We know that legalization enjoys majority support from the public, but getting a majority of legislators on board with a specific bill is a very different and much more difficult task.
BH: On cannabis, your biggest allies or opponents are often well known. How did you identify and influence politicians on the fence about legalized pot?
MS: Our success this year hinged on being able to get a bill through the House Judiciary Committee, which had rejected legalization in the previous year. We had more success in that committee framing the issue as bi-partisan criminal justice reform than as a commercial opportunity. But we still had members to convince, and we were able to do so by organizing effective testimony and working to address each legislator’s concerns. Some legislators who voted in favor still had concerns, but they understood that prohibition is a failed policy, and many felt a sense of inevitability, knowing that marijuana has already been legalized in Massachusetts and Maine.
[Massachusetts and Maine legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, and Connecticut is discussing legalization in its legislature.]
BH: Governor Scott’s veto of this came with specific recommendations for penalties to using cannabis while driving, around children, and giving Vermont longer to study a taxation and regulation. How likely is the legislature to address those concerns during the veto session?
MS: Well, none of it is a deal breaker. Will the legislature be able to agree on policy changes in advance of the June 21st veto session? I think so. The bigger question is whether, procedurally, it will be possible to pass a new bill through both chambers of the legislature during a veto session that is only supposed to last two days. If that turns out to not be possible, the bill could pass in a special session later this year (if one is called) or when the legislature reconvenes in January.
BH: If they do, do you trust Gov. Scott will keep his word and sign it into law?
MS: I think [the legislature] will make the changes Scott wants, and I think he will sign the bill when it comes to his desk. He has a chance to be a hero to a lot of people by signing it.
BH: Has there been any involvement or response from the U.S. Justice Department?
MS: (Chuckling) No. If they can’t stop Washington D.C. from allowing marijuana possession and cultivation, what are they gonna do in Vermont?