MONTPELIER Vt. (Aug. 24, 2020) – A conference committee is trying to hammer out differences in a bill that would tax and regulate the sale of marijuana in the state despite federal prohibition.

A bipartisan coalition of Senators introduced Senate Bill 54 (S.54) in January 2019. Vermont legalized the possession and home cultivation of marijuana by adults over 21 in 2018, but the law does not allow commercial production or distribution of cannabis for the recreational market. Passage of S.54 would create a regulatory structure for the cultivation and sale of marijuana in the state. The proposed law would create various categories of business licenses and a taxing structure.

The Senate passed S.54 by a 23-5 vote in February 2019. The House passed a significantly amended version of the bill on Feb. 27 or this year on a voice vote. The bill was then referred to a conference committee made up of three representatives and three senators to hammer out the differences.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed action on the bill. The conference committee met for the first time on Aug. 19. If the committee can agree on a compromise bill, it will then go back to both the House and the Senate for a final vote.

According to reporting by Marijuana Moment, S.54 has already run into a roadblock. The House inserted a provision unrelated to marijuana that would allow police to pull over motorists not wearing a seatbelt. Under current Vermont law, not wearing a seatbelt is a secondary offense. The issue has been a source of debate in the legislature for quite some time. During Wednesday’s negotiating session, Sen. Dick Sears (D), called the provision a “deal killer.”

“If the House is going to insist on this provision then we might as well walk away,” he said.

The committee has several other issues to iron out, including determining what regulatory body would oversee the state’s existing medical cannabis program, how tax revenue would be distributed, the extent of municipal decision-making on marijuana businesses, and details for regulatory reporting requirements.

Dave Silberman serves as an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate in Vermont. He told Marijuana Moment he was optimistic despite the hurdles.

“I’m pleased that the conference committee was finally able to meet today, and that they were able to resolve several of the outstanding issues. I’m confident that, if conferees continue to negotiate in good faith without interference, the remaining issues will be resolved as well, given that Vermonters overwhelmingly support establishing a regulated cannabis market.”

This debate rages despite the federal government’s continued prohibition of marijuana.


Vermont legalized medical marijuana back in 2004. Decriminalization of recreational marijuana last year removed another layer of laws prohibiting the possession and use of cannabis, and the passage of S.54 would take yet another step forward. Despite this, federal prohibition remains on the books.

Under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) passed in 1970, the federal government maintains complete prohibition of marijuana. Of course, the federal government lacks any constitutional authority to ban or regulate marijuana within the borders of a state, despite the opinion of the politically connected lawyers on the Supreme Court. If you doubt this, ask yourself why it took a constitutional amendment to institute federal alcohol prohibition.

Stripping away state laws criminalizing cannabis is significant because FBI statistics show that law enforcement makes approximately 99 of 100 marijuana arrests under state, not federal law. When states stop enforcing marijuana laws, they sweep away most of the basis for 99 percent of marijuana arrests.

Furthermore, figures indicate it would take up to 40 percent of the DEA’s yearly annual budget just to investigate and raid all of the dispensaries in Los Angeles – a single city in a single state. That doesn’t include the cost of prosecution either. The lesson? The feds lack the resources to enforce marijuana prohibition without state assistance.


Vermont joins a growing number of states increasingly ignoring federal prohibition, and nullifying it in practice.

Colorado, Washington state, Oregon and Alaska were the first states to legalize recreational cannabis, and California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts joined them after ballot initiatives in favor of legalization passed in November 2016. Michigan followed suit when voters legalized cannabis for general use in 2018. Illinois legalized cannabis through legislative action in 2019.

With 33 states including allowing cannabis for medical use, the feds find themselves in a position where they simply can’t enforce prohibition anymore.

The lesson here is pretty straightforward. When enough people say, ‘No!’ to the federal government, and enough states pass laws backing those people up, there’s not much the feds can do to shove their so-called laws, regulations or mandates down our throats.

Efforts to legalize commercial sales of marijuana in Vermont underscore another important strategic reality. Once a state legalizes marijuana – even if only in a very limited way – it tends to eventually expand. As the state tears down some barriers, markets develop and demand expands. That creates pressure to further relax state law. These new laws represent a further erosion of unconstitutional federal marijuana prohibition.

Mike Maharrey

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