This hasn’t been a great month for marijuana legalization in Vermont. Sure, we had Governor Shumlin’s conditional endorsement in his State of the State address; but since then, we’ve had a parade of skeptical comments from influential voices in the House and Senate.
This week brought the best news for legalization since the State of the State: Shumlin and Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears reached agreement on a legalization bill. And since the issue wasn’t going to go anywhere without Sears’ buy-in, this was an important development.
But if you ask me, I say it ain’t happening this year. Eventually, yes. 2016, no.
The Sears/Shumlin deal has raised hackles in the pro-pot community because it would ban grow-your-own. Sears is opposed because it complicates law enforcement, a legitimate concern. If this is the bill’s biggest flaw, then I’d say take the deal, get it into law, and shoot for further changes in the future.
The bill does have a number of positive features, aside from the crucial fact of Sears’ imprimatur. A strong positive: it would ensure that Vermont’s marijuana industry would be small and local. A breath of fresh air after Ohio’s unfortunate experience, where a cadre of high rollers got a measure on the ballot that would have handed the business over to a handful of large companies.
I could go on, but an in-depth evaluation is kind of pointless because it’s not going to pass. There are too many obstacles along the way, and far too many other issues on the table this year.
There is also a surprising void in leadership on the issue. Dave Zuckerman is doing good work on the Senate side, but otherwise, how many lawmakers are taking center stage? Not many. Especially not in the House Democratic caucus. (I’m sure there are House Dems who have spoken out on the issue. But, looking at the debate as a whole from outside, I see a lot more skepticism and criticism than I do wholehearted support.)
Legalization will fail short. Incremental progress will be made, and the stage will be set for legalization in the near future. But not in 2016.
Which means this year’s gubernatorial election is crucial. Either of the Democratic candidates would be almost certain to sign a marijuana bill in the next biennium. Pihl Scott? Not so much. He’s wishy-washy enough that he might go along, maybe let it become law without signing it; but he’s more likely to oppose. Unless the bill is somehow watered-down enough to make everybody unhappy. Point being, a Governor Phil Scott would be bad news for the cause.
(Note that I don’t consider the prospect of a Bruce Lisman victory. Until I see solid evidence to the contrary, I say there’s no way he’s winning the @VTGOP primary.)
The wild card in my grim political calculus is none other than the Governor himself. If he put his full weight behind legalization, it would stand a chance. He is the only person who has enough political power, even as a lame duck, to push this thing through. He made a strong case in his State of the State, and he clearly put in some serious time with Dick Sears; but is he really committed to this issue, even if it takes a lot of his remaining time and energy? I’m not sure.
He would be wise to accept the challenge. His legacy will be marred by failures and unfinished business on big issues like health care reform, mental health, and education; and slow incremental change on issues like adequate social services, prison reform, and access to higher education. If he shepherded a legalization bill into law, he will have done something no other Governor has done: legalized pot through the legislative process. (Washington and Colorado did it via referendum.)
You add that to real progress on opiate addiction, health care, GMO labeling, Irene recovery, entrepreneurship, and dragging Vermont out of a great recession, and you have a pretty fair legacy, warts and all.
Legalization would be a substantial capstone on Shumlin’s governorship. And he is the one who could make it happen in 2016. Even if he does fully commit to legalization, the odds would remain long. But he is the only one who could actually make it happen.