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Vermont’s governor wants to legalize marijuana. Here’s how he would do it.

The inside of the Columbia Care medical marijuana dispensary is seen in New York, Jan. 7, 2016. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Legal marijuana is coming to Vermont this year — at least, if Gov. Peter Shumlin has anything to say about it.

Shumlin (D) offered the broad outlines of a legalization plan Thursday during his annual State of the State address. "The outdated War on Drugs has also failed," he said, "and there is no greater example than our nation’s marijuana laws."

Shumlin noted that, although Vermont decriminalized marijuana in 2013, the 80,000 Vermonters who used marijuana last year — more than one in 10 residents — still had to purchase their weed through the black market.

"These illegal dealers couldn’t care less how young their customers are or what’s in the product they sell, or what illegal drugs you buy from their stash, much less whether they pay taxes on their earnings," Shumlin said.

Shumlin outlined five key requirements of any legalization regime, saying such a system should:

  • have protections in place to keep adolescents from buying;
  • feature taxes modest enough to keep prices low, and hence put black-market sellers out of business;
  • provide tax revenue to expand addiction prevention programs;
  • strengthen existing DUI laws;
  • and finally, ban the sale of edible marijuana products that have proven vexing in Colorado and elsewhere, at least until the state can figure out how to regulate them properly.

The remarks are significant because, as recently as a few days ago, Shumlin said he was "still struggling" over whether to back legalization.

"It's looking more and more likely that Vermont will be the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislature instead of by a citizen ballot initiative," said Tom Angell of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority. "This signals an important shift in the politics of marijuana."

Indeed, researchers have long argued that updating marijuana laws via the legislature, rather than citizen-initiated ballot measures, will lead to smarter regulation. "Ballot initiatives are a terrible way to make policy changes when the technical details matter," wrote drug policy expert Mark Kleiman in 2014. Kleiman would know better than most: He served as the chief of Washington state's marijuana regulation team after voters there opted for legalization in 2012.

"But sometimes initiatives are the only way to go, because legislators simply won’t do what a majority of voters want," he said.

In Vermont, however, the situation will be different. Lawmakers there have been eyeing legalization for a while. The only real obstacle was House Speaker Shap Smith, who had been skeptical but officially endorsed legalization — at least in theory — late in the summer.

In 2015, Vermont lawmakers commissioned a 218-page report on legalization options from the drug policy experts at the RAND Corporation, so they're going into the process perhaps better informed than the average lawmakers would be.

Looming quietly in the background of Vermont's legalization discussion is Bernie Sanders. The senator from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate has officially called for removing pot from the federal list of controlled substances, essentially ending marijuana prohibition at the federal level. On the campaign trail, he's been the most outspoken advocate for changing drug laws, so having a strong national voice in support of legalization may provide some political cover for Vermont lawmakers working to legalize back home.

"We have a history of tackling difficult issues with respect and care, the Vermont way," Shumlin said Thursday. "I believe we have the capacity to take this next step and get marijuana legalization done right."