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Vermont is the first state to legalize marijuana through legislature

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) delivers the fiscal year 2019 budget address on Jan. 23, 2018, in the State House in Montpelier. (Josh Kuckens/Times Argus/AP)

Vermont has become the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana legislatively.

Gov. Phil Scott (R) signed a bill Monday legalizing marijuana for adults age 21 and older. It allows for the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, as well as two mature and four immature plants. Vermont becomes the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana for adults, but the other states did so through ballot initiatives.

Vermont’s law also is notable for what it does not do: create a state marketplace for sales of the drug.

Instead, Scott has directed a marijuana advisory board to study what is needed to implement a legal marketplace in which marijuana is taxed and regulated, with plans to report findings to the governor by Dec. 15. Scott is concerned about sales in the state and what he believes are weak penalties for those who sell the drug to minors.

“Today, with mixed emotions, I have signed H. 511,” Scott said in a statement. “… I personally believe that what adults do behind closed doors and on private property is their choice, so long as it does not negatively impact the health and safety of others, especially children.”

The measure creates a number of new marijuana laws, including stronger penalties for selling marijuana to people under 21 or enabling their consumption of the drug. It also makes it a crime to use marijuana in a vehicle with a child present and makes the consumption of marijuana in public illegal.

Scott said the commission must create educational campaigns around marijuana and ways to keep the state’s roads safe.

“To be very direct: There must be comprehensive and convincing plans completed in these areas before I will begin to consider the wisdom of implementing a commercial ‘tax and regulate’ system for an adult marijuana market,” Scott wrote.

The law will take effect in July.

“We applaud lawmakers for heeding the calls of their constituents and taking this important step toward treating marijuana more like alcohol,” said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (Progressive/Democrat), believes the law is a step forward, but he said the lack of a legal marketplace in Vermont makes the law incomplete.

“In a tax-and-regulate scenario, you bring a lot more above board,” Zuckerman, a longtime legalization advocate, said in an interview.

Because there is no legal marketplace, marijuana will not provide a method for raising money that could be used to fund education initiatives or drug treatment. Zuckerman said people opposed to marijuana legalization have told him that if the state is legalizing the drug they would rather see a taxed, regulated market than one that decriminalizes possession or cultivation of the drug.

“I think there’s a lot of missed opportunity with this method, but I do feel it’s a step forward in having our laws reflect reality of general consumption in our society,” he said.

Some who oppose marijuana legalization are praising Vermont’s bill. Kevin Sabet, the founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization, said the bill allows people to possess an “excessive” amount of marijuana and doesn’t protect children from improperly stored marijuana products. But, he said, it is a “heck of a lot better” than what other states have passed.

“Advocates had to lower the bar and work so hard to even get this passed in Vermont,” Sabet said. “This essentially assures legalization of sales won’t ever be signed by this governor. Scott has essentially gone as far as he’ll ever be willing to go on marijuana.”

This article has been updated.