Home 2016 Issues EDITORIAL: Pot: Should Vermont Race to Legalize, Regulate and Tax It?

EDITORIAL: Pot: Should Vermont Race to Legalize, Regulate and Tax It?

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by Nat Frothingham

The legislature appears to be moving swiftly to consider a number of bills  that could have the practical result of making Vermont the first state in the Northeast to legalize marijuana and then regulate it, grow it, manufacture it, sell it and tax it.

We’re not talking “small potatoes” here. In writing the proposed legislation, lawmakers noted three things.

First, marijuana has been criminalized in the United States for over 75 years. Second, that making possession of marijuana a crime hasn’t lessened its use. And third, that studies show that an estimated 80,000 Vermonters are past-month users of marijuana.

So — it’s been out there for years and years. So making possession of marijuana a crime hasn’t discouraged its use. Then, since an estimated 80,000 Vermonters are past-month users — it’s broadly popular, even though it’s illegal.

At the present time the Judiciary Committee of the Vermont Senate is currently taking testimony on two bills: S.95 that would regulated and tax marijuana and S.241 that deals with possession and cultivation of cannabis and the regulation of commercial establishments.

In summary, the bills would legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana for persons in Vermont who are 21 years of age and over. The proposed new legislation would also create a state-appointed control board to register, supervise and regulate various establishment to cultivate, manufacture, test and sell marijuana.

The proposed legislation would also tax marijuana and lawmakers are calling for proceeds from the tax money to support public education campaigns about the safety risks, not just the safety risks of using marijuana, but the safety risks of using alcohol and tobacco as well. Proceeds from the new tax money would also fund criminal justice programs, substance abuse programs, law enforcement, academic and medical research and other like initiatives.

In addition, the proposed legislation prohibits marijuana use in public places, use by persons under the age of 21 and drugged driving. The proposed legislation establishes fines and penalties for violations of the proposed new law.

Clearly one of the motivations to legalizing marijuana that has attracted the attention of governmental officials and some lawmakers is the state’s desire to shut down the thriving black market trade in marijuana, a trade that’s estimated at $175 million a year. The state wants to shut it down, get it out of the shadows. Then legalize it, run it and tax it.

The Senate has been taking testimony on the legislation and not everyone is in agreement.

In a January 2016 report, The Vermont League of Cities and Towns wrote: “The committee took testimony from a wide variety of individuals, officials and interest groups — from law enforcement and physicians to educators and citizens — who both supported and opposed legalization. Both sides of the debate have been vocal, well organized and passionate.” That comment speaks to the controversy surrounding the proposed marijuana legislation.

Then, according to the report, there is the time crunch, described as follows, “The committed indicated that if legislation were to move forward this year, (the committee): would need to approve a bill by January 29.”

Finally, there are matters of prudence and judgment. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns report stated that political leaders of both the Vermont House and Senate were only committed to passing legislaltion this year IF that legislation was “well thought out and intensely vetted.” As an organization, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns members voted to oppose legalization at its annual meeting last October.

Which brings us to The Bridge and our bottom line with the bills now on the table.

We favor marijuana reform. We favor ending the hypocrisy around serious, even deadly substances, like tobacco and alcohol, that have long been legal but have also often been abused and whose abusive use has led to sickness and premature death.

Marijuana is a drug. And according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Marijuana can be addictive.” But the studies I have seen report that marijuana is far less harmful that either tobacco or alcohol — but still dangerous, when abused.

This paper would not favor marijuana reform until a fool-proof test has been developed to prove whether anyone driving a car who has abused marijuana is a danger on the roads.

That’s one demand we would insist upon. We have a second concern. We are not yet convinced that marijuana should be legalized, sold and taxed until cities and towns and schools across the state have the resources to handle the impacts of marijuana legalization, sales and taxation.

Let’s also remember that we’re not dealing with “small potatoes” here. There is big money at stake.

One section of a very long report written for the State of Vermont by the Rand Corporation, titled “Consider Marijuana Legalization,” addressed the question of how much spending might be generated through marijuana legalization and sales. That report noted that the income from tourism spending each year in Vermont comes to about $1.3 billion. The report went on to note that seven times as many marijuana users live within 50 miles of Vermont as there are marijuana users in the state itself. The report concluded: “So total marijuana spending by near-neighbors approaches the $1.35 billion figure.”

If we embrace marijuana reform, let’s be aware of the money. And let’s not pass marijuana legislation until we are satisfied that the people who are appointed to the Marijuana Control Board and the people who register to cultivate, manufacture and sell marijuana can meet and sustain the rigorous demands of a public trust. It’s conceivable, that we could end the black market trade in marijuana and through a series imprudent choices create a state-regulated monopoly that just might lead to corruption. We don’t want that to happen in Vermont.

Disclosure: Yes, I have smoked marijuana.

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