MONTPELIER — Advocates and opponents — many more of the former than the latter — offered testimony Thursday night on the topic of marijuana legalization.
Nearly 60 people — plus many more who were there to watch — gathered at the State House On Thursday night to offer testimony on S.241, which would allow for the legal possession and sale of marijuana in 2018.
Under the terms of the bill, a Vermont resident would be able to purchase as much as half an ounce from a licensed retailer. Cultivation would also be limited to a handful of licensed businesses.
Overall, 34 people signed up to offer testimony in favor of legalization; 19 people testified in opposition to the bill and five people were undecided.
At this point, the issue has received extensive review by lawmakers, first in the Senate, and during the past two weeks, in the House Judiciary Committee, which held the hearing Thursday in collaboration with the House Government Operations Committee.
On one hand, there was the common argument in favor of legalization: marijuana is already easily available in Vermont.
“Marijuana is already in the marketplace,” said Tom Buchanan, of Londonderry. “If the question is, should we introduce marijuana, the answer would be no. But, Vermonters have been using marijuana for decades.”
Andrew Swingforth, of Topsham — also an advocate of legalization — argued that as long as marijuana is being bought and sold in Vermont, the state should get a taste of the revenue.
“I will continue to use marijuana, whether this bill passes or not,” Swingforth said. “Do you want me to give my money to the black market or to the state?”
On the other side of the argument were concerns over how legalization will make the state’s highways less safe and that it will have negative impact on the state’s youth.
Kim Baker, wife of James Baker — the former commander of Vermont State Police and former chief of the Rutland City Police Department — argued that the lack of a nationwide standard to measure a driver’s THC level will make enforcement and prosecution of impaired driving very difficult.
“This will increase legal fees, court time and will tie up our law enforcement officers and put a strain on the budget,” Baker said.
Sarah Downes, of Enosburg, who has taught high school for 40 years, said legalization advocates don’t fully appreciate the effect marijuana has on a teen’s developing brain.
“These people have no idea the effect this has on the teenage brain,” Downes said. “Who protects the vulnerable in Vermont? The legislature. This is about the unintended consequences.”
Anders Shenholm and Isabelle Bountin, both ninth-grade students at Montpelier High School, shared the results of a survey of students on their attitudes toward marijuana.
According to the survey, 66 percent of 11th graders reported using marijuana at least once, and 95 percent said marijuana is easily available. Ten percent of ninth and 11th graders reported they would consider starting to use marijuana if it were to become legal.
Some members of the public offered testimony on specific aspects of the bill, such as the continued prohibition on people allowed to grow their own for personal use.
Emily Amanna, from Athens, argued that farmers such as herself should be able to get into the cultivation business without having to pay a nonrefundable application fee that can cost as much as $25,000.
Cindy Leszczak, a medical marijuana patient from Weston, opposes the bill because it would outlaw her ability to make the alcohol-based tincture she uses for pain management.
“Let’s start over and get it right,” Leszczak said.
Paul Reis, of Bellows Falls, argued it’s time to explode the idea that marijuana will ruin your life, noting that his daughter smoked it and went on to college and and it helps his son with his ADHD.
“I partied with the best. I smoked marijuana with two guys who went on to become chiefs of police,” Reis said. “We need to tell people, ‘It’s OK, you’re not going to turn out rotten.’ Cigarettes, Mountain Dew, and alcohol have killed more people than marijuana ever has.”