Cannabis Reform Advocates Meet With Governor’s Staff: Pathway or PR?

Heady Vermont Staff 29 May 2017

It’d be both misleading to our readers and breaking our word to discuss details of what was discussed with the Governor’s staff on Friday morning at his fifth floor offices. 

Tweetcap of Meeting by @DaveSilberman

As was tweeted on Friday morning and reported by Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck (@TerriVT), cannabis reform advocates, including myself on behalf of Heady Vermont, sat down and reviewed a five-page memo with draft language of changes that the Governor is (now) indicating should be included if he’s going to sign it into law, or at least not veto it again.

Without getting into the detailed language, here are some takeaways from that meeting and for advocates to consider going forward:

The facts are the facts.

Fact: Friday was the first time that anyone from Governor Phil Scott’s administration spoke to any of the cannabis reform advocates about the issue.

Fact: Governor Phil Scott vetoed an S.22 bill that took months of hard work to pass through both the House and Senate. This two-day June session only exists because this same Governor threatened to veto a budget that the legislature passed (in March, not May) with very nearly unanimous support, including from Republicans.

Fact: No cannabis bill will become law while Phil Scott is Governor of Vermont unless his administration allows it to become law, he signs a bill, or there are enough pro-cannabis reform votes in the legislature to override his veto.

I’m not happy about the Governor’s decision or the lens through which he’s thus far indicated he views the entire issue of cannabis reform (as a public safety, not criminal justice reform or ideally, economic development), but he’s got an opportunity to do some damage control and still enact legalization which he has repeatedly said that he doesn’t philosophically oppose.

There is technically a way forward in June, but the bill will be modified if it’s going to become law

This seems obvious, but refer to #1: S.22 was vetoed. The changes might be very basic, or they may be more dramatic and change the intention of the bill.

It will be legislative leaders and the administration that will discuss those details, which they’ve already started doing. If there was no hope or will on either side, they would be using this issue to make each other look bad instead of talking details.

The Burlington Free Press’ April McCollum does a good job of summarizing the possible ways forward, but both mechanically (how much time there is during the veto session) and politically (how much willingness the legislature and administration have in cooperating on this issue), it’s an uphill battle to get something passed in the June special session starting on the 21st.

That being said, difficult and unorthodox do not mean impossible. Keep in mind that with a few weeks left to go in the session, it looked nearly impossible that the legislature would even vote on H.170, let alone craft and pass a new compromise bill.

The Governor laid out a pretty specific roadmap for changes that would theoretically allow him to sign a bill if he is in fact willing

Only the Governor knows if he sincerely wants to, or is willing to, sign a non-medical marijuana cannabis reform bill in 2017. He left himself political cover by not just vetoing it outright, but he said he would consider a bill that comes back to his desk, not that he wants a bill to come back to his desk. 

The cynical outlook would be to write our meeting off as a political move to relieve the public pressure and dull the intense negative feedback his decision created and that he’d be happy to see the clock run out in the June issue and then say, ‘too bad, I guess we’ll talk about it next year.’ and de facto shift blame to the legislature that spent hundreds of hours discussing and passing this bill, not the single person who vetoed it.

The optimistic outlook would be to take the veto as a political move to appease his red meat base and his friends in law enforcement (who endorsed him specifically to veto this issue, which he dutifully did) but to still leave the door cracked open enough to provide a way for his ‘libertarian streak’ to shine through and actually enact legalization in 2017.

Only Governor Scott knows what’s in his heart and how far he might be willing to go, but his public statement lays out a few pretty specific bullet points that an updated bill would have to address:

  • Make penalties more severe for distributing cannabis to minors.
  • Make penalties more severe for consuming cannabis when in a car, when in the presence of a minor, and when with a minor in a car.
  • For any commission studying regulation, add additional members of the Governor’s administration from the Department of Public Safety, Department of Health, Department of Taxes, and the substance abuse prevention community.
  • Require any commission studying regulation to specifically address driver impairment, marketing to prevent use by minors, and the cost of enacting regulation.
  • Extend the work of a commission studying regulation until 2019

They’re simplified above, but there are many important detailed follow up questions that go along with those bullet points. The substance of those details will reveal a lot about whether the meeting was productive or public relations.

Another very clear indicator of the Governor’s will to be part of cannabis reform will be if he makes any effort to encourage House Republicans — who already indicated that they would block the rules suspension that would be necessary for anything to pass in June — to make passage of his amended bill possible in June. It’s the Governor’s call.

Out-of-state special interest groups are claiming a victory in Vermont

Here’s a look at who’s celebrating their successful investment of out-of-state money and taking credit for Vermont’s veto:

‘Smart Approaches to Marijuana’ is a national anti-legalization group led by disgraced former congressman and recovered opiate addict Patrick Kennedy. When he crashed his car into a barricade on a Washington DC street at 3 a.m. while high on prescription opiates a decade ago, the police drove him home.

Last year, this and other national prohibition groups at least spent some of their money employing a Vermonter named Debby Haskins who dutifully wrote signed letters to the editors, testified, and showed up at the state house in Montpelier; We obviously didn’t agree, but we always had respectful dialogue in person.

This year, instead of a SAM-VT director and/or grassroots network, the most offensive opposition is from an unknown group(s) with a financial interest in keeping cannabis illegal who have decided to hire a PR firm from Virginia to troll the #vtpoli hashtag on twitter.

There’s a lot that could happen between now and June 21, and advocates might not get another invitation to the table. The invitation itself is a form of acknowledgement of our efforts and the numbers and dedication of Vermonters who care enough about this issue to get involved. If we continue to organize and coordinate efforts, our influence will grow; If advocates fall apart and disengage, the status quo will remain.

Either way, we’re not going anywhere.

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