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Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signs bill legalizing marijuana with "mixed emotions"

Marijuana: Clearing the smoke

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Gov. Phil Scott on Monday privately signed Vermont's marijuana bill into law, making the state the first in the country to authorize the recreational use of the substance by an act of a state legislature. The law, which goes into effect July 1, allows adults to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana, two mature and four immature plants.

Vermont will become the ninth state in the country, along with Washington, D.C, to approve the recreational use of marijuana. The other states and Washington authorized the recreational use of marijuana through a vote of residents.

Twenty-one additional states now allow sales of marijuana for medical use.

Vermont law contains no mechanism that allows for a citizen referendum.

The Republican governor had until the end of the day Monday to sign the bill. His office issued a statement Monday afternoon saying he had signed the bill.

"Today, with mixed emotions, I have signed [the legislation]," he said. "I personally believe that what adults do behind closed doors and on private property is their choice, so long as it does not negatively impact the health and safety of others, especially children."

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The law contains no mechanism for the taxation or sale of marijuana, although the Legislature is expected to develop such a system.

Vermont's move is an incremental reform that will have little impact for most people in the state, said Matt Simon, New England political director for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.

"I think the vast majority of Vermonters won't notice any change at all," Simon said. "It's simply eliminating a fine and eliminating a penalty for growing a small number of plants."

The new law is unlikely to prompt people who don't now smoke marijuana to take it up, said Robert Sand, a Vermont law school professor and former county prosecutor who has advocated for years to change the state's drug laws.

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"Realistically anyone who wanted to try it has tried it," Sand said.

There will be times when people misuse marijuana and opponents will cite the incidents as evidence that legalization was not a good thing, he said.

"I believe we will end up with a net improvement of public health and safety even though I recognize there will be some bad outcomes," Sand said.

Opponents of legalization in other states have said increased use among teenagers is cause for concern. In a letter to Colorado's governor last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited a federal study showing marijuana use by young people in the state increased 20 percent since legalization in 2014. That same study continued to track use through 2016, and eventually showed a decline of 13.5 percent.

The Vermont Legislature passed a similar proposal last spring, but Scott vetoed it, citing practical concerns. Lawmakers revised the proposal to do more to protect children and enhance highway safety.

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The revised bill passed both chambers this month.

Recreational use of marijuana already has passed in Maine and Massachusetts, and both states are awaiting the implementation of systems to tax and regulate marijuana.

New Hampshire's House gave preliminary approval to a bill earlier this month that would allow adults to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and to cultivate it in limited quantities, even though a commission studying the issue won't finish its work until next fall.

Scott said last week he was declining to hold a bill signing ceremony because "some people don't feel that this is a momentous occasion."