Vermont takes comment on possible marijuana legalization


BENNINGTON >> Vermonters have a wide range of opinions on the legalization of recreational marijuana use as evidenced by a statewide public hearing held Wednesday.

Of the four people who offered testimony in Bennington, three were in favor while one, a health teacher, was more skeptical.

People from all across the state testified using the Vermont Interactive Technologies system. The event was host by Vermont Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding, who said part of the state's law decriminalizing — but not legalizing — certain amounts of marijuana involved having his office conduct a study on the wide range of issues potential legalization could raise.

Spaulding said his office does not have the resources to do this and so it reached out to the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, a non-profit, non-partisan research group that, according to RAND Co-Director Beau Kilmer, has 1,200 researchers in 30 countries and has done a great deal of research into substance abuse issues and drug policy all over the world.

Kilmer said the group does not have an official position on marijuana legalization.

"They don't come at it with a bias one way or the other," said Spaulding. "That was important to us. We were not looking for somebody to make the case that we should legalize marijuana use or that we shouldn't. We were trying to get an analyses on all the issues that will allow the governor and legislators to make an informed decision."

Kilmer said public comment will be used in a report the RAND group is working on for the Secretary of Administration and the State of Vermont.

Spaulding said at some point marijuana legalization will be a serious consideration for the legislature given how states like Colorado and Washington have legalized it. Uruguay has also recently become the first country to legalize it.

He expects a draft of the report to be complete in January. The first piece will examine the current number of marijuana users, how much marijuana they consume, and the impacts of enforcing prohibition. The second piece will look at health and safety concerns, the third will examine the state's options for regulating it beyond banning it, and the fourth will project tax revenue and potential increases in consumption.

"This report is not going to come out and say Vermont should legalize or Vermont should not legalize, that's not what this report is about," said Kilmer. "It's really about saying, hey, here are some different options, the pros and the cons associated with the different consequences, and it's also honest about what we don't know. Too often in this debate folks on both sides tend to make the science seem a lot more certain than it really is."

Kilmer went into more depth about the kinds of things the study will look at. The state will have to consider what current marijuana laws are costing it and how changes to the laws and regulations will affect the black market.

The state has the option of allowing private businesses to sell marijuana. It can also limit this activity to non-profits. If it allows marijuana to be sold, it must consider whether or not to regulate the drug's potency. Marijuana can be taxed by weight or THC content and each option has different implications if the free market is involved. One way may make growers increase the potency of their product, which has health implications.

Unlike alcohol, for which there are roadside breath tests, there is no easy way to test for marijuana use at traffic stops or crash scenes. This has implications for DUI enforcement, said Kimler.

Some studies indicate marijuana can increase the risk of developing schizophrenia in those predisposed to it. It's also been suggested that users under 18 can see their IQs lowered by small amounts, said Kimler.

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Kimler said he has seen reports on crime rates in places where legalization has occurred that contradict each other. It also depends on how one views the data.

Kilmer said the state needs to weigh its options, as each approach has consequences. Setting taxes too high leads to evasion. Banning certain marijuana products can simply create black markets for them. Prohibition laws can also have negative impacts.

Charles Marsden, a health teacher at Mount Anthony Union Middle School, who was not speaking on the school's behalf, said he has done a great deal of research into marijuana use while pursuing a certification in public health from SUNI Albany.

"What we've learned about drugs in the last 10 years is overwhelming, and it wasn't until 1990 that they began to use human testing for its effects. There's a lot of misinformation out there and it's understandable why people don't trust the research from years ago, but just in the past couple months there's been tremendous amounts of good research coming out on the effects of marijuana," he said.

According to a study done in Holland, one in nine users develop dependence, Marsden said. "If a person starts as a teenager that rate goes up. We're seeing similar results in other countries, other studies," he said.

Even Colorado made marijuana legal only for those over 21 as studies show harmful effects for those who use while younger.

"I understand there's a lot to be gained financially potentially, but there's also things that at this point also need to be taken into consideration," he said.

Charlie Murphy, of Bennington, said marijuana can be used responsibly. "I've been using marijuana for many years," he said, saying the War on Drugs has been an "abject failure" and that drugs are readily available throughout the country.

"I started using marijuana around the time I was diagnosed with the disease that robbed me of my eyesight. At that time I was very anxious and frustrated as a result of going blind and pot was able to take the edge of that anxiety," he said. "I was able to process what I was going through and adapt and learn how to go blind gracefully."

He is in favor of legalization and said there are many factors that can, and likely will, be considered.

Mary Beth Bennett, of Bennington, said she supports legalizing marijuana because it will create jobs in the state and allow the justice system to better allocate resources. She said it is not a gateway drug and has medicinal uses.

Keith Rowe, of Bennington, who said he uses the term "cannabis" over "marijuana" because the latter is a slang term created by those in favor of banning it, is in favor of it being legalized. He said he has battled alcohol drug addiction before, and used cannabis early in his life. He said he has felony convictions related to cannabis. Rowe said it has medicinal uses.

Others from around the state appeared fairly mixed between supporters of legalization and those who were not. Most expressed a desire to see some level of regulation and urged the state to weigh its options carefully.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at 802-447-7567, Ext. 115.


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