Matt Simon: Process on marijuana bill has been deliberate, responsible

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Columnist Don Keelan seems to think legislators are involved in a "race" to end marijuana prohibition in Vermont ("Postpone the race to legislate recreational marijuana," Nov. 20). In reality, the legislative study process on this issue has been deliberate, responsible, and responsive to public input.

Rather than being told to cease and desist, Vermont's elected officials and policymakers should be commended for the time and energy they have spent examining the state's challenges with substance abuse, evaluating the effectiveness of current policies, and exploring potential reforms that could improve public health and safety.

Mr. Keelan appears to believe that marijuana regulation should only be discussed after Vermont's problem with opiates is resolved and after the economy is once again booming. What he does not appear to grasp is that ending our failed prohibition can actually help on both fronts.

One source of potential confusion arises when he describes the difference between marijuana and opiates as "subtle." In reality, the difference is enormous. The most obvious distinction is the fact that, as Mr. Keelan notes, opiates are responsible for an alarming number of deaths: 326 last year in New Hampshire alone, he reports. In contrast, marijuana is not known to have caused a single fatal overdose in its long history of use, and scientists agree that it is much less addictive than opiates (and alcohol, for that matter).

Despite Mr. Keelan's assumption that regulating marijuana for adult use would exacerbate Vermont's opiate problem, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests it could actually alleviate it.

For years, patients have been reporting that having access to medical marijuana reduces their need to take prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin. In some cases, they report weaning off them entirely simply by substituting marijuana.

But we don't have to take the patients' word for it. Research published last fall in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that states with effective medical marijuana laws experienced 25 percent fewer fatal opioid overdoses than states without such laws. And a study released this week by researchers at Columbia University found that patients in treatment for opiate addiction who consumed marijuana were more likely to complete their courses. They also reported that THC, the primary psychoactive component in marijuana, appears to help relieve withdrawal symptoms.

Several studies have confirmed that marijuana is beneficial for the treatment of chronic pain. Unfortunately, Vermont's medical marijuana program is one of the most restrictive in the nation, and many people who suffer from pain issues are not able to participate. As a result, they continue to be prescribed narcotic pain relievers while being denied access to a much safer alternative.

Another way in which regulating marijuana could reduce the state's opiate problem is by separating the markets for marijuana and other illegal drugs.

Vermont's current laws force adults to purchase marijuana in the underground market, where they are often exposed to other, more harmful substances.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, adults are able to make their purchases at regulated, marijuana-only retail stores where they will not be introduced to heroin or other dangerous illicit drugs.

Mr. Keelan cites a New Hampshire Granite State Poll to make his point that the public is concerned about opiates. He failed to mention, however, that the same poll found that 60% of Granite Staters support making marijuana legal for adults. Apparently, while he and some others might find it "ironic" that legislators would move to regulate marijuana while simultaneously addressing the opiate epidemic, most people fail to see the irony.

His argument that legislators should focus on the economy is even more difficult to comprehend. In Colorado, more than 21,000 job licenses have been issued to individuals working in the marijuana industry, and the state's economy is clearly booming. This year, Forbes ranked Denver the best place for business among the country's 401 metropolitan statistical areas, noting, "Companies are increasingly choosing Denver as the site for new operations or to relocate."

Given these facts and others that Vermont lawmakers have discovered during their deliberative process, it is understandable why they might be displaying some sense of urgency. Vermont's current prohibition on marijuana is a public policy disaster, and it will continue to cause real harm to citizens, both directly and indirectly, for as long as it goes unaddressed.

Legislators are on the right track, movingly cautiously and determinedly toward a more sensible marijuana policy in Vermont. They should not let "Reefer Madness" stand in the way of progress.

— Matt Simon is the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.


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