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In Vermont, lawmakers lead the way on legalizing recreational pot

In Vermont, lawmakers lead the way on legalizing recreational pot
James MacWilliams prunes a marijuana plant that he is growing indoors in Portland, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press)

A total of eight states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. That left-leaning Vermont is poised to join them is hardly a surprise.

But unlike the other states, which all legalized pot through ballot measures, Vermont lawmakers are taking the lead.

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On Wednesday, the state Legislature became the first in the United States to approve a bill legalizing recreational marijuana. Republican Gov. Phil Scott has indicated he will soon sign the measure into law.

The move by lawmakers shows how far the legalization movement has come. Ballot measures allow lawmakers to hide their own opinions on the issue. Bills force them to take a public stance and assume the political risks.

Those risks have diminished as public support for legal pot has grown. A Gallup poll in October found that 64% of Americans support making marijuana legal.

Other state legislatures could soon follow Vermont's example. Bills are scheduled to be introduced in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

And in New Jersey, Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Murphy has pledged to sign such legislation. Leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature there have said a measure could be passed by early spring.

In Vermont, legalization has been debated for years, with most polls showing widespread public support for it. Among voters there, 57% support allowing adults to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana, according to a survey conducted last year by Public Policy Polling. A total of 39% are opposed.

The bill passed Wednesday by the Democratic-controlled Legislature allows people 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and to grow up to two plants to maturity at a time. The legislation does not create a system in which dispensaries sell marijuana — as is the case in most of the other states where recreational pot is legal.

"This is a big step forward for Vermont," said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that advocates for legalization. "Vermonters should be proud that their state is becoming the first to do this legislatively, rather than by ballot initiative."

The vote on Wednesday in Vermont comes a week after the Trump administration announced that it would scrap an Obama-era policy offering legal shelter for state-sanctioned marijuana sales.

But if other legislatures push ahead with their plans, New Hampshire would be the only state in New England in which recreational pot is not legal. Maine and Massachusetts both passed legalization measures in 2016.

"States are not sitting back and waiting for the federal government to change laws," said Mason Tvert, who has helped lead efforts to legalize marijuana in several places.

"Vermont could very well be the first state in history to legalize through the legislature, but not the last to do it this year," he said.

Twitter: @kurtisalee

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UPDATES:

1:45 p.m.: This article was updated with details of the marijuana bill and the status of the drug in nearby states.

This article was originally published at 10:40 a.m.

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