Shocker: Vermonters Favor Marijuana Legalization | Off Message

Shocker: Vermonters Favor Marijuana Legalization


And now from the Department of the Completely Obvious: The Green Mountain State likes its ganja.

According to a new poll commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project, 57 percent of Vermonters favor legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana. Thirty-four percent oppose doing so, while 9 percent aren't sure. The survey, conducted earlier this month by the Castleton Polling Institute, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Says Matt Simon, MPP's New England political director, "People are increasingly comfortable with this idea: that marijuana should be regulated instead of criminally prohibited in Vermont."

The poll is part of MPP's strategy to put marijuana legalization on the legislature's front burner next winter. Simon says his group plans to initiate "more of a public discussion over the course of the summer and fall" and play an active role in the November elections. A study mandated by the legislature to gauge the fiscal impact of legalization on Vermont is due from Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration in January.

But despite apparent popular support for legalization, significant barriers remain. House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) has expressed skepticism over relaxing Vermont's drug laws, as has Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Dick Sears (D-Bennington).

"I'm really concerned about the whole push to legalization," Sears says. "I think next year is too soon to have it, personally."

For years, Smith and Sears stalled efforts to decriminalize marijuana, but last year both relented. Vermont became the 17th state last June to remove criminal penalties for those caught with small amounts of marijuana — less than an ounce, in Vermont's case. Now, such users face fines ranging from $300 to $500.

Before contemplating legalization in Vermont, Sears says the state should wait to see how Colorado and Washington fare. Voters in those states passed ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana in November 2012.

In recent public comments, Shumlin has said the same, though he has indicated he would eventually support legalization. Shumlin appeared at an MPP fundraiser in New York City in September 2012 and took part in a conference call with top MPP donors in September 2013 to discuss the organization's strategy to legalize marijuana nationwide.

According to Simon, Colorado's and Washington's experiences should only serve to strengthen arguments for legalization in Vermont.

"The sky clearly hasn't fallen," he says. "Assuming that continues to be the narrative, I think legislators will feel much more comfortable with this issue by the time the next legislative session starts."

Support for legalization in Vermont falls along predictable lines, according to the Castleton poll. Democrats favor it by a margin of 69 to 22 percent, while independents favor it by 58 to 34 percent. Only 34 percent of Republicans support legalization, while 59 percent oppose it.

Young Vermonters are far more open to the idea. Seventy-three percent of those between the ages of 25 and 34 support legalization, while only 22 percent in that group oppose it. Support is split 44 to 46 percent among those 65 and over.