March 28, 2017
No, this is not a post on guns…that will be another day. This is about cannabis. I’ve received a flurry of emails asking me to vote “yes” or “no” on H.170, a bill that proposes to legalize a Vermont citizen’s ability to carry an ounce of marijuana and to have two mature plants and four immature plants in their residence or on their property.
I will be voting “yes” on this bill. Here’s why:
It is long past time, in my opinion, to end the prohibition on the possession of marijuana, and will be soon on the manufacturing, sale and regulation of marijuana or, more precisely, cannabis. H.170 is a small step in that direction.
The United States and the State of Vermont have ended prohibition on the manufacture and sale of alcohol and have legalized the sale of lottery tickets and games. We have never banned or regulated “minor” games of chance, like bingo or break open tickets, even if we assume the time and money spent on those games can add up to an “addiction.”
We have also seen a deadly increase in the marketing, sale and use of prescription opioids, and as a backlash to the expense of those drugs, the increased use of heroin. These narcotics are so addictive that, some reports show, one can get hooked within a week of use. Packets of heroin, as we’ve seen recently in the press, are sometimes used as a salary replacement to allegedly “functional” addicts. Heroin is also “cut”, or diluted, with chemicals that have enhanced its strength, or not cut enough, both of which can lead to fatal overdoses.
Marijuana, which is illegal to grow and use for all but limited medical uses, is used by nearly 80,000 Vermonters. According to my children, all now high school graduates, it was easier to obtain marijuana on the school grounds than it was to obtain alcohol.
All of this is simply a prelude to say that no matter how illegal it is to grow, sell, use and abuse marijuana in the State of Vermont, it is here. No amount of money invested in the War on Drugs has succeeded in limiting or eradicating this fact, and, because of the federal classification of the drug, those who do get caught growing, selling and, on occasion, using end up with a life penalty far greater than the offense.
Is marijuana harmless? No, of course not. Is it a gateway drug? No, not really, not any more than the other controlled substances we make legal and sell. Can it be addictive? Yes, of course, to a fairly small percentage of users.
But here’s the thing: addiction exists today, use exists today, abuse exists today, and, for those who don’t abuse and aren’t addicted, responsible enjoyment of cannabis exists today. All of it is done under the shadow of its illegality. To be honest, though, getting help to those with problems is harder than it is for the more prevalent, visible and legal abuse of alcohol or gambling or legal pharmaceuticals. Shining sunlight on these issues by making this small step forward should make rehabilitation more accessible for both adults and, when needed, for youth.
On a federal level, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug, subject to the highest level of regulation and categorization as “dangerous”. Decades of allowed research has shown this categorization to be overstated, and the continued listing has even dampened research and development of hemp as a commercial product, even though it does not have the same active chemicals as cannabis sativa. This classification is, arguably, a political choice made several times since the 1930’s, and it deeply colors the conversation states are having now about legalization.
On a state level, a number of them have passed referenda that instructs states to legalize the growth, sale, regulation and use of marijuana. Proponents point to the revenue available based on taxation as a large positive. The tax income is not a priority for me, personally. I understand its allure, but what I feel is more important is the control by the state over the sale and manufacture. I believe that by the time we see a level market for cannabis, as we do now with alcohol and lottery tickets, we will end up netting about the same as we do for those products — approximately $20-25 million from each.
Without a referendum, Vermont is forced to be more deliberative in their consideration of legalization. It is an industry that will be overseen by such committees in the House and Senate as Judiciary, as H.170 is, and General, where we handle control issues, and Agriculture, which will find a way to promote the farming and processing, and Government Operations, which will work with the public safety community to enforce the laws of control, to Ways and Means, which will determine levels of taxation, and so on.
I have to say I appreciate the deliberative approach, especially on this issue. If we are going to fully legalize the drug, I want us to do it right, with the right controls, the right taxation and the right enforcement on the sale and use of cannabis. Politically, that seems unlikely this session. Legalizing possession of an ounce of marijuana and two mature plants is a small step that will allow Vermonters to continue to use their homegrown cannabis without fear of being caught in a legalistic net that will damage them far more than the drug itself.
As we move forward with this, we will look at the effects of legalization in the states that have done so, and that have had some recent experience with setting up a system, regulating, and taxing it. In Colorado, for instance, studies show that teen use has not increased, and in fact may be trending downward, and here in Vermont, decriminalization has also slowed underage use. There are plenty of studies to sift through that show the plusses and minuses, and we won’t move toward full legalization until we have studied the issue deeply.
Sale will remain illegal, the minimum age of possession will be 21, and the conversation will continue, perhaps for several years to come. I acknowledge that individuals will struggle with addiction, and we remain concerned about early usage and its effects on brain development. Just as we do now, and just as we do with alcohol, gambling and legal pharmaceuticals. We know how to address these issues, provided there is financial capacity. What we don’t know yet is how to manage the creation of an entirely new and state-restricted manufacturing and sale mechanism.