Gov. Scott vetoes pot bill: Says he is open to some changes
MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott became the first governor in the country to veto a bill that would legalize marijuana.
Scott announced Wednesday he will send the bill, S.22, back to the Legislature because the measure does not meet his requirements on a few key points.
However, the governor said he is “offering a path forward.” If lawmakers make certain changes to the legislation, he’d be willing to come around, he said.
Scott believes the Legislature could satisfactorily revise the bill as soon as next month, when lawmakers are expected to return for a veto session related to a showdown over the state budget.
The pot legislation, which passed both the Senate and House earlier this month, would remove all criminal and civil penalties for adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana as of July 2018. It would also allow people to grow up to two flowering and four immature plants at home.
The bill also would have created a commission charged with drafting language to create a system of regulated sales.
It is the first time any legislature in the country passed a bill to legalize marijuana. Eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized pot, but by ballot measure.
The legislation drew statewide and national attention from advocates on both sides of the issue, even prompting the editorial board of The New York Times to pen an op-ed encouraging Scott to sign it.
Scott said Wednesday that he views legalization through a “libertarian lens” and generally believes adults should be able to make their own choices in private, as long as they don’t impact others.
However, he has reservations about legalization because of concerns over how the change in policy would affect drug-impaired driving rates, children and more. S.22, he said, currently does not address those concerns.
Scott said he will send the bill back to the Legislature with recommendations for changing it.
“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,” he said.
Scott will ask lawmakers to alter the framework of the commission that would be charged with studying a taxed and regulated model of marijuana sales.
He asks that the panel include representatives from the departments of Public Safety, Health and Taxes. Currently, the Agency of Agriculture is the only branch of the administration included on the panel.
He also would like to postpone for a year the due date for the commission’s report to the Legislature. The bill calls for that report by November.
“This is a huge policy decision for us,” Scott said. “I think that we need to move a little bit slower.”
He will ask lawmakers to change a section of the bill that he says seems to weaken penalties for furnishing pot to those younger than 21. He will also ask for steeper penalties for using marijuana around kids or in vehicles.
Scott said he has never used marijuana himself, though he has friends who do. He said he feels it is worth considering moving forward on this issue this year, instead of waiting until next year.
Though Scott is open to taking further action on the bill in June, its future is now back in the hands of legislators.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a proponent of legalization, said he expected a veto and was “pleasantly surprised” that the governor expressed an interest in compromise.
Sears has some concerns about extending the date for the commission’s report on a regulated system. Like many others in the Senate, he favors such a system. He is open to the governor’s other suggestions, and plans to speak with Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, the administration and other colleagues about moving forward next month.
“I’m feeling pretty positive about the proposal,” he said.
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said she is “disappointed” Scott vetoed the bill. Grad was a co-sponsor of the bill that initially proposed to remove all criminal and civil penalties for pot possession.
However, she said, it is encouraging that Scott indicated a willingness to work with lawmakers on the issue. She was open to the suggestions he made to change the legislation.
“I’m hoping that the governor will take leadership across the aisle in actually showing the path that he sees forward,” Grad said.
Though the governor is open to moving forward next month on marijuana legalization, House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, does not expect many members of his party to drop their opposition.
Legalization is not strictly a party issue — Rutland Republican Rep. Tom Burditt was a sponsor of the initial House legalization bill. But with few exceptions, members of the party voted against the bill when it came up earlier this month.
“I do not see many of our members changing their minds on supporting marijuana legalization,” he said.
The lack of support within the minority could present a logistical problem for tackling the issue during the two-day veto session. Without support from House Republicans, there will not be the votes necessary to skip the waiting period for all bills that come up on the calendar.
Turner said he feels the issue is best dealt with when lawmakers return next year.
“There’s really no need to bring this up in June,” Turner said. “Let it go through the process.”
In a statement, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, called S.22 a “modest, reasonable step.”
“It’s unfortunate that the governor chose to put his ideas on the table after adjournment, rather than work with the Legislature over the course of this session to include his ideas into the bill during the legislative session,” Johnson said.
Proponents of legalization, including Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, expressed disappointment over the governor’s announcement.
“I am sad to see the governor disregard the will of most Vermonters and reduce individual liberties in our state,” Zuckerman said in a statement.
Bobby Sand, a Vermont Law School professor and former Windsor County prosecutor, is a proponent of legalization.
Sand said the announcement is the “best bad news I have heard in a while.”
“With more than 40 years of flawed marijuana policy, I can wait 30 more days for a legalization bill that addresses the governor’s reasonable concerns and becomes law with his signature,” Sand said.
Laura Subin, of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, said she was not surprised to hear Scott’s concerns about the bill. However, she was optimistic.
“Vermonters want to see marijuana policy reform happen, and we’re encouraged that there’s a pathway forward,” she said.
She said that at its heart the bill is a “criminal justice reform” measure and an incremental step forward. The coalition remains focused on working toward establishing a regulated market, she said.
Meanwhile, others celebrated Scott’s veto and urged him to oppose future legislation.
The Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics applauded the governor’s decision.
“As marijuana is not the harmless substance that some special-interest groups suggest it is, Vermont’s pediatricians ask Gov. Scott to steadfastly oppose any forthcoming special-session legislation that would cause harm to Vermont’s children and adolescents,” the group said in a statement.
Kevin Sabet, president of the national group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, released a statement commending Scott for his decision.
“But our work is not over,” he said. “There will be a special session next month to discuss a path forward. We will be working very closely with our allies to make sure any piece of legislation does not allow Big Marijuana to come to Vermont.”
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