Image of Vermont Sen. David Zuckerman who plans to introduce a bill to legalize marijuana
MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont lawmakers are considering whether to become the first state Legislature to legalize marijuana.
Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis, but in each of those cases, it was voters at the ballot box, not lawmakers, who changed the law.
Vermont could become the first state in history where elected officials directly legalize pot, and Gov. Peter Shumlin said he "continues to support" efforts to legalize marijuana.
Vermont's Constitution prohibits ballot referendums and initiatives, meaning any decision on marijuana would have to come directly from lawmakers. And in the Green Mountain State, lawmakers say, they remain close to voters because there are so few of them: In the fall election, only about 193,600 voters cast ballots, out of a total of 439,734 registered voters in Vermont.
It's pretty easy to give us a call, and we'll call you back," said Sen. David Zuckerman, who plans to introduce a marijuana legalization bill this session.
Zuckerman is a member of Vermont's Progressive party representing Chittenden County, the state's most populous county.
National momentum appears to be shifting toward marijuana legalization, and observers say Vermont or Rhode Island could be the next states to legalize.
"A lot of legislators are just beginning to recognize that most of their constituents support ending marijuana prohibition," said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project. "Colorado and Washington are proving that marijuana can be regulated and taxed like alcohol, and lawmakers around the country are taking notice."
Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., said he thinks state lawmakers aren't quite ready to act.
"My sense is the Legislature here will move toward legalization, but not for two or three years so they can learn more from the experiences of Washington and Colorado," said Davis.
Zuckerman wants to see action more quickly.
"I think there is a wait-and-see attitude on the part of many," Zuckerman said. "There's also a let's-get-there-and-get-it-done attitude."
Driving much of the debate in Vermont is an independent report commissioned by Shumlin that says state marijuana taxes could generate $20 million to $75 million a year. The biggest con? Those revenues could evaporate if the federal government intervenes, or if another Northeastern state becomes a competitor. To reach the higher revenue number, the report contemplates "marijuana tourism" — smokers coming from other states.
Of course, not everyone in the state is thrilled with the idea of encouraging marijuana tourism.
The president of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, George Merkel, opposes legalization, saying he doesn't understand why the state is even considering it, other than "the lure of money."
But Tom Angell of the pro-legalization Marijuana Majority says legalization is about more than taxes and regulations. Many Americans, he said, are just tired of seeing legal bans on a widely used substance.
"Over the next two years, as more states gear up to consider legalization ballot measures, I predict that more governors, and even some U.S. senators, will say that it's time to end marijuana prohibition," Angell said. "Polls now consistently show that a majority of voters supports legalization, and there's a growing expectation that elected officials will finally start to address this issue in the way their constituents have been demanding."
Regardless of which way Vermont ultimately goes on legalization, the state has a long history filled with contrarians and cantankerousness. One of its most beloved leaders, Ethan Allen, once famously threatened to declare war on all mankind in order to protect the 14th state's independence. And one of Allen's best-known quotes? "The gods of the valley are not the gods of the hills, and you shall understand it."
In other words, Allen said, Vermont is different and it's best you don't forget that.
Trevor Hughes and Dan D’Ambrosio ~ USA TODAY ~ January 28, 2015

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