I agree with marijuana legalization opponent Debbie Haskins on one thing: it is not inevitable that Vermont will pass a legalization and regulation bill in the 2016 legislative session (“Haskins: Legalized pot not inevitable,” Oct. 23). Rather than taking the support of their elected officials for granted, Vermonters who care about ending marijuana prohibition need to continue encouraging legislators to move forward rather than waiting to create a responsible, regulated system.
It’s easy to see why supporters of prohibition might be anxious about 2016, as many other states appear poised to legalize and regulate marijuana for adult use. At least five states — including two New England states, Maine and Massachusetts — are expected to legalize via ballot initiative in November 2016. Additionally, legislators in Rhode Island and New Hampshire are also considering regulation as an alternative to their failed prohibitions.
Meanwhile, to the north, newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his party have promised they will begin moving “right away” to end Canada’s prohibition and begin regulating the production and sale of marijuana.
Vermonters are far from alone in recognizing that prohibition has failed. A recently released Gallup poll confirmed that a strong majority of Americans (58%) support making marijuana legal, and based on demographic trends, it appears likely that this support will only continue to increase. Specifically, the Gallup pollsters reported that younger Americans were more supportive than older Americans, and they also found that support among older Americans has increased substantially.
Some opponents of legalization, perhaps seeing that the end of prohibition is inevitable at some point, have suggested that legislators should focus on other issues in 2016— such as the economy, or the opioid crisis — rather than spending time on marijuana regulation. These objections ignore the clear economic benefits of marijuana regulation as well as the potential benefits for addressing the opioid problem. Legislators are certainly capable of considering multiple issues during one session, and marijuana regulation happens to be one issue that stands to benefit Vermonters in a variety of ways.
First, we should consider the fact that prohibition has been a tremendous drain on the state’s economy. The Rand Corporation estimated that Vermonters spend about $175 million each year buying marijuana from the illicit market. In contrast, state-regulated marijuana businesses in Colorado now employ more than 21,000 people, and, as a direct result of marijuana regulation in Colorado and Washington state, Americans have spent over a billion dollars buying marijuana from regulated marijuana-only retail stores instead of from illicit dealers, gangs, and cartels. Additionally, both states are on track to rake in over $100 million in taxes this year, and although taxation is not the number one benefit of marijuana regulation, it is certainly nothing to sneeze at — the state could, for example, be using money from marijuana taxes to help address the opioid addiction problem.
Additionally, there is increasing evidence that marijuana is being successfully used as a substitute for opioid painkillers, which result in more than 15,000 deaths per year in the U.S.. Despite Vermont’s law allowing for limited medical use of marijuana, only about 2,000 patients are enrolled in the program, and it’s still much easier for these patients to access prescription opioids than marijuana (the law requires patients to experience “intractable… severe pain” before they can be certified with a pain diagnosis). Simply allowing adults to purchase cannabis from a regulated store will enable many more Vermonters who suffer from chronic pain to seek relief from a safer alternative. Similarly, it also makes sense to allow adults the freedom to use a substance that is so much less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.
So far, four states and the District of Columbia have ended marijuana prohibition via ballot initiative. However, this is not an option in Vermont, which is one of about 25 states that does not allow voters to bypass the legislature. On the bright side, many of Vermont’s political leaders have shown a willingness to lead on this issue. Several have visited Colorado and Washington to observe for themselves, and I have yet to hear from a legislator who has visited a legal state and returned home with the belief that marijuana regulation is a mistake.
Legalization may not be inevitable in 2016, but Vermont’s legislative leaders will have a remarkable opportunity next year to demonstrate leadership and move the state forward into an era of responsible regulation.
Matt Simon is New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.