Shumlin open to discussion on marijuana legalization
By PETER HIRSCHFELD
Vermont Press Bureau | September 04,2013
In the wake of a federal memorandum that appears to condone the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state, Gov. Peter Shumlin said he’s “open to further discussion” about instituting similar laws here.
The Justice Department issued a long-awaited directive last week that outlines a hands-off approach for dealing with producers and sellers of marijuana in states that have legalized the plant, as long as those states have put in place “a strong and effective state regulatory system.”
Shumlin, a longtime proponent of cannabis reform, signed into law earlier this year the decriminalization legislation that he spent years pushing through the Statehouse. Just two months after that law took effect, the second-term Democrat said he’s ready to talk about going further.
“I applaud the Department of Justice for being more clear about how they’re going to enforce legislative issues of small amounts of marijuana,” Shumlin said Tuesday. “And I am open to a further discussion in Vermont about what makes the most sense for this state.”
Shumlin hasn’t sought to bring the issue to the fore, and his comments about marijuana Tuesday came in response to questions from reporters at a news conference on an unrelated issue.
But the politically astute governor also hasn’t shied away from the issue. As Seven Days reported in August, Shumlin is scheduled to participate in a fundraising conference call later this month with the Marijuana Policy Project, a national outfit pushing for legalization. The subject of the call: “to discuss our strategy for legalizing marijuana nationwide over the next four years.”
During the debate over decriminalization, Shumlin said legalization would fly too aggressively in the face of federal statutes that now classify marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic with no medicinal value. In light of the new Justice stance, however, Shumlin said he’s ready to talk legalization.
“We are losing the battle in Vermont on opiates, prescription drugs, heroin and other drugs that are ravaging our communities, driving crime and destroying families,” Shumlin said. “And I think it’s smart to continue to look at how we’re spending our law enforcement dollars, and what makes the most sense when it comes to small amounts of marijuana.”
Shumlin said he’d corresponded recently with Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn about the Justice memo.
“We both received the same email giving us the update (from the Department of Justice), and I think our reaction was, ‘Let’s talk more about this in the future,’” Shumlin said.
Vermont’s first medical marijuana dispensaries began selling cannabis retail to eligible customers earlier this year, and the decriminalization law — which did away with criminal sanctions for possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana and replaced them with a $300 civil fine — became effective July 1. Shumlin said both laws have been going well so far.
He wouldn’t give a timeline Tuesday for when he’d like to see legalization considered in Montpelier, but he said he doesn’t want to wait too long.
“I think we should learn from Washington and from Colorado,” Shumlin said. “But I don’t think we should let them get too far ahead of us.”
He said Vermont should watch how those states handle their legalization experiment, so “we can poach from them in the future.”
Asked Tuesday whether he is open to a conversation about legalization, House Speaker Shap Smith, a longtime opponent of decriminalization who reluctantly allowed the issue to come to a vote on the floor during the last legislative session, said, “I don’t think it’s a priority of the Legislature next year.”
Asked whether it would be a priority in 2015, Smith said it’s too early to say.
“We have to go through an election cycle before we decide what those priorities are,” Smith said. “And there is no guarantee I will be re-elected, so I can’t say.”