Vermont's Legislature on Wednesday became the first in the country to vote to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
The legislation, which passed the House by a 79-66 vote, would allow adults to possess and use small amounts of the drug beginning next year. The bill was identical to one passed last week by the Senate that also sets up a commission to study the best way to regulate marijuana.
The bill now heads to Republican Gov. Phil Scott, whose spokeswoman said he's not philosophically opposed to legalizing marijuana but must be sure the bill answers certain public safety and health questions.
"He'll review the bill when received to determine if those questions are addressed," spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley said after the vote.If Scott signs the legislation it will become law on July 1, 2018.
Under the legislation, small amounts of marijuana would be legal to possess and grow for anyone over age 21. Larger amounts would remain illegal.
A nine-member commission will develop a proposal to tax and regulate marijuana, and the proposal will be presented to lawmakers next year.
Before Vermont's vote, eight states and the District of Columbia had legalized the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana. The vote by Vermont lawmakers, however, was the first to legalize marijuana separate from a voter initiative.
The hour-long debate before the vote featured impassioned comments by some lawmakers who felt legalizing marijuana would lead to increased substance abuse, car accidents and other unintended consequences.
"This is voting for trouble. We've got a lot of problems, and this is only going to make it worse," said Rep. Ben Joseph, a Democrat from North Hero.
But opponents' arguments were countered by others who said that marijuana use is already prevalent in Vermont and passing the law could give the state a say in its regulation, end the black market and possibly increase state revenue.
"What is changing is the landscape of our region," said Rep. Ruqaiyah Morris, a Democrat from Bennington, whose home is less than 10 miles from Massachusetts, where retail marijuana sales are due to begin in mid-2018. "This is going to happen. We can either be pro-active and be part of this conversation and ensure we are thinking about all these things, including some sort of a mechanism to address them, or we can just take a wait-and-see approach and deal with it next year."