The Vermont House of Representatives voted 83 to 61 Thursday in favor of a bill that would fully legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and allow individuals to grow up to six marijuana plants at home.
The bill is expected to win approval in the Senate, which passed a nearly identical version last year. The state's Republican governor, Phil Scott, has already said he is “comfortable” with the legislation and has signaled he'd sign it.
If that happens it would make Vermont the first state to legalize recreational marijuana through the legislature, rather than via a statewide ballot initiative. But Thursday's House vote was significant for another reason: Just hours earlier, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the removal of long-standing federal protections for state-legal recreational marijuana programs.
That decision weighed on some Vermont legislators, who cited the federal policy change in introducing amendments that would delay implementation of the bill, according to the Burlington Free Press. But those changes were voted down.
Lawmakers in the Vermont Senate, which is poised to take up the bill next week, were similarly defiant. “Apparently, [Sessions is] more troubled by an 80-year-old using medical marijuana to treat a terminal health condition than he is by coordinating election strategy with Russians,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe.
Vermont legislators' decision to move forward on legalization is emblematic of the difficulties the Justice Department will face if it attempts to crack down on state-legal marijuana operations. Lawmakers in states that have already passed legalization measures tend to be fiercely protective of them, particularly when the question of federal interference arises.
Vermont's bill also differs from marijuana legalization measures passed in other states in that it doesn't set up a commercial market: Buying and selling pot would remain prohibited. With no large-scale marijuana growing and selling operations, Vermont would not offer much in the way of targets for zealous federal prosecutors.
The public, meanwhile, appears eager to see an expansion of legal marijuana nationwide. Nearly two thirds of American adults say marijuana should be legal. Michigan voters are likely to see a marijuana legalization measure on the ballot this November, and New Jersey's new Democratic governor has pledged to legalize marijuana in that state.
The next state-level challenge to federal marijuana policy will happen next week, when New Hampshire legislators take up a legalization bill of their own.