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What makes Vermont's new marijuana law different

Nine states have legalized marijuana, but Vermont did it in a way that's rather unique.
Marijuana plants for sale are displayed at the medical marijuana farmers market. (Photo by David McNew/Reuters)
Marijuana plants for sale are displayed at the medical marijuana farmers market.

Vermont takes pride in its firsts. The Green Mountain State was the first, for example, to take steps to ban slavery in its state constitution. Vermont was also first to declare war on Hitler's Germany -- months before the United States did as a whole.

More recently, Vermont was first on civil unions. It was also first to approve marriage equality through its legislature. Yesterday, as the alt-weekly Seven Days  reported, Vermont scored another first.

Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill Monday that legalizes adult possession and consumption of marijuana in Vermont beginning on July 1.His signature makes Vermont the first state to legalize pot by legislative action; other states used public votes on the issue.

Scott, a Republican, signed the bill yesterday after it passed the Democratic-led legislature two weeks ago. "I personally believe that what adults do behind closed doors and on private property is their choice, so long as it does not negatively impact the health and safety of others, especially children," the governor said in a statement, adding that he approved the proposal with "mixed emotions." (He vetoed a previous version of the legislation.)

Vermont is the ninth state to legalize marijuana, though in the previous eight states, advocates found it necessary to circumvent lawmakers -- because it was unrealistic to think elected officials would approve such a policy. In Vermont, the opposite was true.

That said, there are all kinds of restrictions on the new state policy. As the Washington Post  explained, Vermont's law "does not allow for a commercial marijuana industry to be established there. Individuals may possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal consumption and grow up to six plants, but buying and selling the drug remains prohibited."

And then, of course, there's Donald Trump's Justice Department to consider.

As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, recent progress on state-based marijuana laws was made during the Obama era, because the Democratic administration allowed states to pursue their own course.

But it didn't have to. Under federal law, officials could have ignored voters' will and blocked those policies from advancing. State experimentation was allowed to flourish because Barack Obama and his team took a progressive approach to the issue. It led to a 2013 policy, established by the Justice Department, which directed federal prosecutions to focus on "cases of peddling pot to minors, selling marijuana across state borders or growing pot on federal land, or when it involved gangs or organized crime." Otherwise, federal law enforcement adopted a largely hands-off posture on the issue.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime critic of marijuana, announced plans to scrap that 2013 policy and opened the door to federal prosecutors enforcing federal anti-pot laws, regardless of state-based policies approved by voters.

It's against this backdrop that Vermont policymakers ignored Jeff Sessions.