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Vermont legalized weed, but it may not end the state's black market

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Vermont just became the first state to legalize cannabis through its legislature, rather than by popular vote of the state’s residents. This makes it the ninth state to allow recreational marijuana, and the first to pass weed laws in 2018.

Vermont's weed laws, however, are different than most other states with legal marijuana. Under the new law, Vermonters over 21 will be allowed to consume and to grow cannabis, but not to sell it.

This differs from states like California, Colorado and Washington state, which all have a tax-and-regulate system. In all these states, it is not only legal to consume and cultivate marijuana, but the state also creates a legal economic system to sell marijuana, with taxes and regulations.

Vermont's law does not legalize a tax-and-regulate system, nor does it even require one to eventually be instituted - as do Maine's marijuana laws. The only other place in America this type of system exists is the District of Columbia.

One of the main arguments for legalizing marijuana is that legalization will reduce the crime that comes along with with a black market, and will allow the state to tax an industry that in all but legality already exists. California's legal market began on January 1 of this year, for example, and it is projected to bring in $5 billion of revenue. But before that, the cannabis black market in California was also making billions of dollars.

In cities like D.C., though, where only use has been legalized, the black market has simply turned gray.

The gray market "is much less involved with criminal elements that were controlling the drug trade in the city previously," said Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), an advocacy organization based in D.C. "Of course there's still some of that there, because there's no regulation."

MPP issued a statement Monday praising Vermont Governor Scott for signing the bill, but Fox says the gray area is not ideal.

"As long as there's no regulation and no oversight, it does provide an outlet for traditional illicit and criminal organizations to continue doing business."

While marijuana advocates decry the smoke-don't-sell laws for not doing enough to decrease the black market, the laws are going too far already for anti-marijuana activists.

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"These gray area laws go a step further than they do from decriminalization," explained Will Jones of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (Project SAM). "They do that intentionally so down the road, they can make a better argument to push for legalization."

Advocates like Jones say the gray area is only marginally better than the black market, and that any kind of legalization makes it easier for minors to to acquire marijuana, particularly African-American youth. In Colorado, according to data gathered by Project SAM, there have been a greater number of underage possession arrests since legalization. A dis-proportional number of these arrests were young African-Americans.

Neither Fox nor Jones believe this will be the final step in Vermont's marijuana laws.

In its statement after Governor Scott signed the bill, Marijuana Policy Project said they will "continue to work with our allies in the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana and the state task force to effectively regulate marijuana similarly to alcohol."

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