Our View: A step forward on marijuana

The Vermont Legislature took another step towards full legalization of marijuana on Thursday night, legalizing the possession of 1 ounce or less and two mature and four immature marijuana plants by people 21 or older.

The measure, H.511, passed the state House of Representatives by a 81 to 63 vote. It now heads back to the state Senate, where Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, expects that it could be voted on and head to Gov. Phil Scott's desk as soon as Wednesday.

Why the Legislature felt the need to handle this bill on the second day of the session, with so many other competing priorities, is a fair question. Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, had a salient point when he summed up the implicit message to voters: "Never mind the 9.4 cent tax increase that you're facing, we're going to let you smoke a doobie," he said, according to VTDigger.org. "Maybe when you smoke a joint you won't feel that 9.4 cents as much."

That said, legalization has been a long time coming, and moving forward on ending the double standard between alcohol — which the state sells, and collects taxes upon — and marijuana, which, while not harmless, carries less baggage — is a positive step. Possession of small amounts of marijuana has already been decriminalized in Vermont, so it's a logical progression to declare it legal. And it is wasteful for the state to spend money and resources on prosecuting casual users of marijuana when there's an opiate epidemic raging, and much more deserving of law enforcement's time and attention.

But did the Legislature go far enough?

The House stopped short of establishing a system for the legal sale and taxation of marijuana, preferring to take a cautious, step-by-step approach. Indeed, the House was so committed to that approach that when Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, proposed an amendment that would add sale and taxation to the bill — at a very healthy rate of 25 percent — it was turned down.

It may be that Turner's proposal was a "poison pill" intended to derail the bill's eventual passage, though he said that wasn't the case. But the House might kick itself for missing an opportunity to move forward on collecting millions of dollars in taxes. If the legal sale and taxation of marijuana begins in Massachusetts on July 1 as expected, Vermont officials will literally see potential revenue going up in smoke over the state line. And this is a state that could use some revenue.

It might also be that state lawmakers are rightfully concerned about the unintended consequences of legalizing marijuana. But it's a bit late in the game to be concerned about that now. There's no logic in legalizing a substance and hoping that the wrong people will use it; that genie has been out of the bottle for some time.

The bill addresses some of the concerns Gov. Scott raised in vetoing a previous legalization bill last summer. It creates criminal penalties for using pot in a vehicle with children and increases penalties for providing marijuana to underage users. These are wise additions.

It remains to be seen whether legalizing marijuana will increase its availability and use am ong minors. It's likely that minors will use the same methods to obtain legal marijuana that they have always used to obtain legal beer and liquor -- older friends, fake IDs and raids on their parents' supply. That in and of itself is cause for concern. But we know that right now, teenagers are getting their hands on illegal marijuana, as they have for decades. The arrest of a Manchester man last fall on charges alleging he sold weed to high school students in a parking lot suggests as much.

And the only way to end the double standard between alcohol and marijuana is to regulate them equally.

Failing to establish the legal sale and taxation of marijuana leaves us with a hybrid of the status quo, in which possession is legal, but entrepreneurs operating outside the law are still free to grow or obtain weed and sell it to willing buyers in parking lots or on corners, with no legal oversight whatsoever. And this is not your mom and dad's weed: Decades of careful cultivation have increased its potency from what baby boomers might remember from the 1960s and 70s.

It deserves to be regulated and taxed, in the plain light of day where its consequences can be seen and addressed.


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