Story + Video: Legal pot discussion commences, but support is in question

MONTPELIER — Advocates of legalizing marijuana in Vermont are touting new supporters and the potential benefit to Vermont’s economy as State House discussions on legalization commence.

The Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana held a State House news conference Tuesday to tout the support of former Vermont Attorney General Kimberly Cheney’s support for legalizing pot this year. The Senate Judiciary Committee is currently reviewing two bills that would do just that.141393-142333

The effort to legalize marijuana received a boost from Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin last week when he announced in his State of the State address last week his willingness to sign a legalization bill this year. Shumlin said he would sign a bill if it ensures pot would stay out of the hands of underage people, has tax rates low enough to scuttle the black market, considers road safety and uses revenue for drug use prevention and addiction treatment.

Matt Simon, with the Marijuana Policy Project, said there is “considerable support” in the State House for legalization. He said moving forward with a regulated market would serve the state better.

“We know that Vermont can do much better with a regulated approach to marijuana production and sale. Current prohibition has failed to prevent marijuana from being widely available and widely used across the state. As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars go to illicit dealers rather than to regulated businesses,” Simon said.

Laura Subin, director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, said a RAND Corp. report released last year shows that prohibition has “failed.”

Laura Subin

Laura Subin

“We learned, for example, that approximately 80,000 Vermonters consumer marijuana each month and that these Vermonters are currently spending approximately $175 million each year buying marijuana from an elicit market. These numbers tell a story of a policy that simply isn’t working for the people of Vermont,” she said.

Subin said prohibition “has created far more problems than it has solved.”

“Under prohibition there are no regulations aimed at reducing youth access to marijuana. Dealers don’t check IDs and they often introduce marijuana consumers to substances that we know are far more dangerous,” she said.

Cheney, who served as attorney general from 1973 to 1975, and also served as Washington County state’s attorney, urged lawmakers in a statement to legalize marijuana this year.

“As a former attorney general of Vermont, I am committed to bringing awareness to the failures of marijuana prohibition and working toward a safer Vermont. We can’t expect a different result by doing the same failed action over again,” he said. “The only hope lies in a fundamentally different approach; without further delay, the Vermont Legislature should move forward with plans to regulate marijuana in 2016.”

Simon said the group was “not here to argue that marijuana is a harmless substance and we’re not here to claim that marijuana tax revenue is somehow going to solve all of Vermont’s problems.”

“Instead, we’re here to make the case that any harms associated with marijuana consumption can best be managed in a regulated environment and that targeted tax revenues can help Vermont do a much better job than it’s currently doing with drug education, prevention, treatment and enforcement,” he said.

Bill Lofy of the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative, which is now part of the coalition, said legalizing pot will bring new economic activity to Vermont.

“We estimate that Vermont can create up to 4,000 direct and indirect jobs. That’s a lot of economic activity that can be created. That can serve as an engine for Vermont’s economy,” he said.

Jobs will be created through marijuana cultivation and retail, but new tech and laboratory jobs are also likely to spring up around a fledgling industry, according to Lofy.

“One of the things that we’ve been talking about in this debate is this question of how do you do a roadside test for testing whether people are impaired by marijuana,” Lofy said. “There’s a new test that’s being developed that’s showing great promise in being able to produce roadside results. Where is that research taking place? It’s taking place at Washington State University. It’s not ironic that this groundbreaking research, where we’re going to see real results that are going to help keep our roads safer, is happening in a state that has already legalized and regulated cannabis. This is exactly the kind of economic activity that we can grow in Vermont and these are real, good, sustainable jobs for the long-term.”

Bill Lofy of the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative testifies at the State House in support of legalizing marijuana. (VPR photo)

Bill Lofy of the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative testifies at the State House in support of legalizing marijuana. (VPR photo)

Lofy also said the state can be a leader in setting testing standards to determine the potency of marijuana.

“We believe that Vermont can be the first in the nation to set up uniform testing standards, and in so doing, creating economic activity in conjunction with our higher education institutions. Growing jobs, finding new research break throughs and creating economic activity — those are things that cannabis can do for Vermont,” Lofy said.

While the former top law enforcement official in the state has come out in favor of legalization, many current law enforcement leaders have not, according to testimony offered Tuesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“The sheriff’s are adamantly opposed to legalizing marijuana, and that feeling is unanimous among all the sheriffs,” said Rutland County Sheriff Steve Bernard.

Bernard argued that, unlike alcohol, when it comes to impaired driving, there is no equivalent to a breathalyzer to determine if a driver is stoned.

The state currently uses drug recognition experts, but there are only 34 certified officers out of the 1,700 or so police officers throughout the state.

Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette — who is also chairman of the Vermont Police Chiefs Association — said every police chief he has spoken with opposes legalization.

“It seems like we’re spending a lot of time and resources legalizing something at the state level that is illegal at the federal level,” said Doucette, who noted that the federal government’s hands-off policy toward states with legal pot could change a year from now with the election of a new president.

While Doucette shied away from specifically referring to marijuana as a “gateway drug,” he asserted the drug is the first step toward heroin addiction.

He also said legal pot would tarnish the state’s reputation.

“We don’t want people to think the Green Mountain State is all about bud,” Doucette said.

How much support there is among lawmakers for legalizing marijuana is in question. Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith told the Vermont Press Bureau Tuesday that he agrees with Shumlin’s criteria for a bill, but there currently is not enough support to pass it this year.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s ready, and that’s based on discussions that I’ve had with members and I don’t think the membership in general, in the House, is as enthusiastic as the governor is to move forward with a bill. If the governor wants a bill he’s going to have to be all in and put 100 percent of his energy behind getting a bill, and even then it’s not clear to me whether it’s going to go all the way,” Smith said.

Politics could end up besting the efforts of legalization advocates, the speaker said.

“I think that people do not have a ready understanding of how the issues that the governor articulated and the ones that I’ve articulated would be addressed. In general, the mood that we’ve picked up on among the membership is that people are not enthusiastic about moving this bill forward,” he said. “It’s not just one of those things that you just roll the bill out there, roll the ball out there, and expect it to happen. It’s a difficult issue and there are a lot of tricky cross-currents out there and I don’t think people fully appreciate that.”

Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell said the governor’s office would not comment on the vote count for a bill that is not yet completely written. Shumlin is committed to passing an appropriate bill, he said.

“The governor is 100 percent behind the right bill. He thinks the current system that relies on black market drug dealers to sell marijuana to the 80,000 Vermonters who reported using it last year is broken and that it’s time to fix it,” Coriell said.

Read the Health Impact Assessment on marijuana by the Vermont Department of Health below:

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