The future of legalized recreational marijuana use in Vermont hinged Thursday on a decision by Republican Gov. Phil Scott a day after the state Legislature became the first in the country to vote to legalize it.
Scott hasn't said whether he'll sign the bill to make Vermont the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana, but he has said he wants to ensure the proposal addresses public safety needs, such as ways to counter drugged driving.
"I'm going to review the bill as passed," Scott said Wednesday. "But I've been pretty clear that I'd like to see some improvements to the bill to make sure we have structures in place that provide safety to Vermonters."
Other states that have approved recreational marijuana did so after voter referendums. Vermonters are mixed on the idea.
Montpelier resident Brett Campbell, 57, described himself as a recovering alcoholic and said Thursday that he was in favor of legalization.
"I find it really kind of silly that there are a lot of people who are so afraid of a plant that doesn't have the intoxicating effects to near the degree of self-control and control over judgment as you lose when you're impaired by alcohol," Campbell said.
Montpelier attorney Paul Giuliani, 73, said he felt the legislation was a terrible idea. Laws haven't been able to keep alcohol out of the hands of underage drinkers, and they won't work with marijuana users, either, he said.
"It just sends the wrong message," Giuliani said.
Studies by the Vermont Department of Health have found that Vermont has among the highest prevalence of marijuana use in the country and the second-highest use among people ages 12 to 25.
Proponents of marijuana legalization said Wednesday's vote by the Democrat-led House to give final approval to a measure already passed by the Democrat-majority Senate shows the inevitable expansion of marijuana legalization and the recognition by officials that it's better to regulate and tax the industry than to keep it in the shadows.
The vote came six months after residents in Massachusetts and Maine voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Both states are now developing mechanisms to regulate and tax the sale of marijuana. The New Hampshire Legislature is considering a bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
"Definitely November of 2016 seems to have accelerated the thinking in the minds of many policymakers," said Matt Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which favors legalization. "It's inevitably coming to the region."
On Thursday, the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Vermont sent Scott a letter urging him to veto the marijuana legislation, arguing it could "roll back critical public health gains" in the state.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says almost 20 states have bills pending that would legalize adult-use marijuana. A number of states have rejected such proposals.
If it becomes law, Vermont would become the first state to have legalized marijuana via the legislative process. The other eight states that have legalized marijuana have done so via citizen referendums, but Vermont does not have a legal mechanism to carry out such referendums.
Under the Vermont legislation, small amounts of marijuana would be legal to possess and grow for anyone over age 21. Larger amounts would remain illegal. A commission would develop a proposal to tax and regulate marijuana.
Scott can sign the bill, allow it to become law without his signature or veto it. The legislation did not receive enough votes to override a veto.