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Vermont Could Be First to Legalize By Legislature

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Efforts to legalize marijuana in Vermont just got a serious boost.

House speaker Shap Smith (D), who previously said he was undecided about ending marijuana prohibition, has announced his support for moving a legalization bill forward.

“It’s clear to me in my discussions with Vermonters that in general, the people in this state probably favor legalization,” Smith said in a Friday appearance on Vermont Public Radio’s Vermont Edition. “I will support a bill to legalize marijuana if we make sure that we have very strong protections for people who are driving under the influence, to make sure that we can prosecute them, and as long as we make sure that we have laws that keep marijuana out of the hands of kids.”

Combined with Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin’s existing support for legalization, Smith’s willingness to bring a bill to a vote means that Vermont could be the first state to end prohibition by an act of the legislature. The four states that have legalized cannabis thus far have done so by voter initiatives on election ballots.

“This definitely increases the chance that Vermont will become the first state to legalize via the legislature,” Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project told Marijuana.com in an email.

Another contender to be the first is Rhode Island, where the legislature in recent years has legalized medical cannabis and decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana by overwhelming vote margins.

“Vermont and Rhode Island are both well-positioned heading into 2016, but since Vermont’s session ends in May and Rhode Island’s lasts a bit longer, it’s probable that the Vermont bill would pass before the Rhode Island bill,” said Simon.

Smith, who is running for his party’s 2016 nomination for governor, said in the interview that prohibition will likely soon come to an end throughout much of the Northeast. “It’s pretty clear to me that states around Vermont are also probably going to legalize marijuana in the near future,” he said, referring to voter initiatives that will likely appear on the Massachusetts and Maine ballots next year.

“Vermont is likely to move along that trend as well,” he added.

But even if a legalization bill passes Smith’s House, it will still have to clear the Senate on the way to the governor’s desk. And that could be a struggle, as Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell isn’t supportive. Last year, he said that the negatives 0f a pending legalization proposal outweighed its positives.

But Simon, of the Marijuana Policy Project, is hopeful that Vermont will follow the lead of other states that have paved the way. “Colorado and Washington have already proven that it’s possible to regulate marijuana successfully, so there’s no longer any reason to wait before ending marijuana prohibition in Vermont,” he said.

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