Over the past four years, marijuana legalization has come to the United States at a relatively fast pace, thanks to overwhelming support for it among young adults. But up until now, change has mostly come from the voters -- sometimes in spite of lawmakers' wishes.
That balance could be shifting toward legislators, at least in one state: Vermont. In the next few weeks, Vermont could become the first state legislature to legalize marijuana. At Gov. Peter Shumlin's (D) urging, a bill to make Vermont the fifth state to legalize recreational marijuana passed the state Senate in February and is currently being debated in the state House.
Its passage is not a given, but marijuana advocates are optimistic, both about the bill's chances and Vermont's ability to inject the marijuana legalization debate into even more state legislatures. For some marijuana advocates, the statehouse is yet one more path to legalization. But at least one well-known drug policy expert sees a clear benefit to letting lawmakers get ahead of legalization instead of reacting to a referendum.
Those opposed to marijuana legalization counter that it doesn't matter who's legalizing it; even the best intentions can't alleviate public safety challenges that come from legalization.
We readily admit Vermont is hardly a bellwether state for social issues. It is heavily Democratic and politically unique. Its most prominent politician is a democratic socialist senator named Bernie Sanders (I), who has long been vocal about changing drug laws.
But states have followed its lead on marijuana before. In 2004, Vermont was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana through its state legislature. Since then, another one-fifth of the country has followed suit.
Here's what you need to know about Vermont's marijuana debate and how it could change the legalization game.
What legalized marijuana in Vermont would look like
The bill, as it stands now, would allow possession for anyone over 21, the age used in states like Colorado and Washington.
But unlike Colorado and Washington, which legalized marijuana in a matter of months after voters approve it, Vermont would wait more than a year after the bill's passage before residents could walk into a store and buy a joint.
If Shumlin signs the bill this summer, Vermont residents won't be able to buy marijuana legally until January 2018. For the first few years, the state will also limit the number of marijuana licenses for selling and growing marijuana. In addition, public schools in Vermont would receive state-mandated drug education programs about marijuana a full semester before it's legal.
The slow, methodical approach to legalization is the main difference between Vermont and other states that legalized it via ballot initiatives, said said Matt Simon, the New England head of the Marijuana Policy Project, which is lobbying for the bill's passage. Lawmakers will give themselves and state agencies plenty of time to prepare, train staff and come up with new regulations.
There are a few other ways Vermont's bill stands out: After watching Colorado struggle with how to regulate edibles, Vermont won't be legalizing those at all. Lawmakers also resisted marijuana advocates' lobbying to allow people to grow marijuana plants in their own homes. And if you want to invest in one of Vermont's marijuana stores, you'll have to move to the state and become a resident; no out-of-state funding is allowed.
Overall, Simon's group is happy with the bill and just as happy that Vermont is the first serious attempt to legalize marijuana via lawmakers and not voters. (At least one other state, Rhode Island, is considering a bill to legalize marijuana, but it's too early to tell whether that bill has a shot. New Hampshire's state House became the first chamber of any state legislature to vote on legalization when it narrowly passed a bill in 2014 but it died in the state Senate. Advocates tried again this February; it was defeated.)
Vermont's state House seems much more agreeable to legalizing marijuana. Once skeptical, House Speaker and gubernatorial candidate Shap Smith (D) endorsed legalization this summer.
Simon says if Vermont lawmakers can successfully take full responsibility for legalizing marijuana, it will encourage other like-minded lawmakers to start crafting their own marijuana policy rather than reacting to a referendum.
"Legislators should see what's happening here and see they can really have these conversations in a mature away and get beyond the giggle factor," he said.
The case against ballot initiatives
Ballot initiatives are the go-to method for marijuana legalization advocates for a reason. For one thing, advocates can shape the policy they want instead of trying to lobby lawmakers. And they've been pretty successful when it comes to marijuana. Outside of the outlier of Ohio, advocates' only notable defeat by ballot was in Oregon in 2012 -- and voters there legalized marijuana two years later.
There is also the simple fact that lawmakers with jobs on the line are less apt to get ahead of social change. Should the nascent recreational marijuana experiment go sideways, lawmakers would rather not have that vote on their records. Take same-sex marriage, for example. Most of the state legislatures that approved same-sex marriage didn't do so until around 2013, when polls showed more than half the country supported it.
An October Gallup poll found 58 percent of Americans, the highest mark in almost half a century, favor legalizing marijuana.
Putting legalization to a vote is especially popular in a presidential year, when advocates can piggyback on the higher turnout and more intense media coverage. This year, Arizona, California, Nevada, Ohio, Maine and Massachusetts are all expected to have some kind of legalization question on their ballot, whether medical or recreational.
But as The Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham noted in January, researchers have argued that ballot initiatives risk glossing over boring-but-important details, which so happen to be the very same information lawmakers spend countless hours chewing over.
"Ballot initiatives are a terrible way to make policy changes when the technical details matter," wrote drug policy expert Mark Kleiman in 2014. Kleiman ran Washington's regulation team after voters there legalized it in 2012.
Without lawmakers' input at both the state and federal level, Kleiman envisioned a not-too-distant future where the cannabis industry has an undue amount of power to shape legalization. And that, he says, is reason for even reluctant lawmakers to get off the sidelines on legalization.
What the critics say
Opponents to legalization argue the cannabis industry already has too much influence, no matter who legalizes marijuana. "My biggest concern is creating Big Marijuana -- sort of like Big Tobacco," Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy official with the Obama administration and president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, told Vox in March.
SAM argues the same players that are active in ballot initiatives are funneling resources to shape Vermont's debate, so there's no real substantial difference in what Vermont lawmakers are considering to what Colorado or Washington voters decided. "It's a distinction without a difference," said Jeffrey Zinsmeister with SAM.
The legalization effort is also playing out against a backdrop of New England's opiate addiction epidemic, which Vermont is not immune from. Supporters of Vermont's bill argue legalizing marijuana will free up police to concentrate on heroin and painkiller overdoses. They also point out the bill will funnel tax revenue into treatment and recovery programs.
But opponents wonder if now is the best time to put yet another substance on the street -- and make it even easier to obtain.
“Shouldn’t we be trying to solve that problem first, before we introduce another drug that we all have to admit has mind-altering characteristics?" asked state Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, a Democrat, as the bill passed the Vermont state Senate in February.
We'll find out in a matter of weeks whether his colleagues in Vermont's House agree or disagree. And time will tell whether Vermont once again becomes a leader in how marijuana is legalized.