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Pot legalization raises questions

Vermont Governor Phil Scott

Vermont Governor Phil Scott

Courtesy of Seven Days

Courtesy of Seven Days

Vermont Governor Phil Scott

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January was an exciting and historic month for the Vermont Legislature as they made nationwide headlines, becoming the first state to legalize recreational marijuana through legislation. Lawmakers wasted no time, taking up the bill on the first day of the 2018 session, passing it with surprising haste.

The new law allows adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana or up to five grams of hashish, as well as the cultivation of two mature and four immature marijuana plants.

Eight other states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for recreational use, but all have done so through voter referendum. Colorado and Washington were the first to do so, back in 2012.

The passing of H.511 was no surprise to Vermonters, but it faced a mostly uphill battle over the course of the last year in the Statehouse. Even now, after being signed into law by Governor Phil Scott, there are those who maintain their reservations about legalizing the federally controlled substance.

“Today, with mixed emotions, I have signed H.511,” Scott said in a statement to the General Assembly. “…I personally believe that what adults do behind closed doors and on private property is their choice, so long as it does not negatively impact the health and safety of others, especially children.”

A similar bill, S.22, was passed in both the House and Senate in last year’s session, but it was, ultimately, vetoed by Scott on the grounds that it didn’t do enough to address highway safety and the safety of minors.

In a press conference following the veto, Scott made clear his concerns regarding the bill, and gave a detailed list of changes he wanted to see moving forward. Those concerns were addressed in the form of H.511, although the Legislature failed to pass the bill during a one-day veto session in June.
Where Scott felt there were only certain areas that needed addressing, others remained steadfast in their opposition.

“What was it that cost my son, Chase, his life?” said Darryl Rodgers, a father who lost his 20-year-old son in a car accident, addressing the Vermont Assembly. “It was his decision to use marijuana. There’s no doubt about that in my mind.”

Rodgers spoke as a part of Physicians, Families, and Friends for a Better Vermont (PFFBV), an advocacy group formed over the summer, comprised of physicians, lawyers, and generally concerned citizens. The group launched a renewed pushback against legalization efforts before the start of the new session.

Dr. John Hughes is a professor and psychiatrist at the University of Vermont who specializes in addiction, and is an important member of PFFBV. He and doctors from six of the largest physician organizations in Vermont pleaded their case alongside Rodgers in the House chambers.

They insisted that the potential harms of marijuana aren’t fully understood, especially when it comes to youth, and that legalization sends the wrong message: that kind of behavior is safe and acceptable.
Matt Simon, a spokesman for the marijuana advocacy group The Marijuana Policy Project, disagreed with the members of PFFBV, saying that after two years of legal sales in Colorado, there’s been no increase in marijuana use among young people.

“The data all tells the same story: The sky hasn’t fallen,” Simon said. “…A lot of people expected dramatic short-term impacts, and those simply haven’t come to pass.”

According to a federal study done by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, marijuana use in Colorado teens, aged 12-17 went from nearly 13 percent to about 9 percent, its lowest numbers since 2007. The study also found that alcohol, tobacco and heroin use in the same age group sharply dropped following marijuana legalization.

Scott hopes for similar results here in Vermont, and, although, he and PFFBV voiced similar concerns about legalization, he acknowledged other reasons for supporting marijuana reform.
“I know we cannot ignore the fact that it is a widely-consumed substance,” Scott said in his S.22 veto statement. “Many states – and an entire nation to our north – are in the process of making it legal.”
This sentiment is even noted in items four and five in the “Findings” section of H.511. Item four refers to a 2014 study conducted by the RAND Corporation that estimates some 80,000 Vermonters regularly use marijuana. Item five refers to the fact that voters in Massachusetts and Maine approved possession and cultivation for personal use in November 2016.

Also listed in the General Assembly’s findings are some unnerving statistics about disparities in drug enforcement in the state of Vermont that provide further insight into the push for marijuana reform.
“The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” a 2013 report released by the American Civil Liberties Union, states that African-Americans in Vermont are 4.36 times more likely to be cited or arrested for marijuana possession than whites. The national average for likelihood of African-Americans being cited or arrested for marijuana possession is 3.73 times more likely than whites. Even following Vermont’s decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana, Vermont had the third-highest racial disparity in drug arrests.

After examining data from 29 police agencies covering 78 percent of Vermont’s population, University of Vermont researchers found that, while driving, African-Americans and Hispanics are four times more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested by Vermont police than whites and Asians.

“As part of efforts to eliminate implicit bias in Vermont’s criminal justice system, policymakers must reexamine the State’s drug laws, beginning with its policy on marijuana,” the text from H.511 said.
The bill goes further to say that this reform will give Vermont the ability to revise drug laws and policy that have negative effects on minority populations, although it stops short of establishing a regulatory marketplace.

The idea of a taxed, regulated marketplace for marijuana was brought up in debate on the House floor, most notably by House Minority Leader, Don Turner. Turner has been outspoken in his opposition to legalization, but proposed an amendment on the House floor that would have regulated and taxed marijuana sales, saying it was his attempt to make a bad bill better.
“I had to do something that I felt was responsible,” Turner said in an interview with Vermont Public Radio. “I hope that they do the tax and regulate versus just Wild West.”

Fiscal reasons aside, Turner’s motion touches on a more significant issue with the bill.
H.511 allows for the possession and cultivation of marijuana, but not the sale, and the reality is that not everyone who regularly uses cannabis either can or would be able to grow their own. This puts users in a quandary.

A core argument against marijuana prohibition is that it fuels the illicit drug trade. By decriminalizing and ultimately taxing and regulating the market, the state would hypothetically take power away from organized crime and put that money in its own hands.

“Prohibition has failed miserably,” Senate President Tim Ashe said after the Senate’s final vote. “It’s benefited drug dealers and cartels, and failed to promote public safety.”

Despite establishing harsh penalties for the sale of marijuana, especially to minors, the case can be made that H.511 almost encourages illicit sales of marijuana by failing to create a regulated marketplace.
Scott has been very up front with his feelings about continuing reform into the realm of a regulated marketplace. He has said that without “comprehensive and convincing plans” pertaining to education and highway safety, he will veto anything of that nature that reaches his desk, and is also concerned about a market-driven demand for growth, only made worse by a hunger for profits.

With this type of marketplace seemingly a ways off, it’s important to understand what H.511 does allow. Beyond the actual allowance for possession and cultivation, H.511 establishes the definitions of marijuana and the rules therein for its consumption.

The first distinction made in the new law is between a mature and immature marijuana plant. A mature plant is defined as a female plant that has flowered, and has visible buds, which means that an immature plant is a female plant that has not flowered and does not have visible buds.

It’s important to note that while the limit is two mature and four immature plants, there are other stipulations to cultivation. That limit is per home, regardless of how many adults aged 21 or older reside there. The law also requires that they be out of view from the public, and anything harvested from plants in the home does not count towards the one-ounce limit, so long as it is reasonably secure and inaccessible to any minors. Any potential grower would need to either own the property he or she is growing on or have written consent from his or her landlord.

Consumption of marijuana, whether it be smoked or ingested, can only be done on private property. The law very specifically states that marijuana can never be consumed in a vehicle. While it would seem like common sense that the driver can’t be under the influence, passengers who partake put the driver in danger of becoming impaired from second hand smoke.

The law goes even further, stating that, in a vehicle, marijuana cannot be in the passenger area, which it defines as anywhere the driver or passengers may be seated or have ready access to. It can be kept in a locked glove box or the trunk, which is also defined as any area behind the final row of seats.

Chemical extraction using butane or hexane is expressly forbidden, as is the sale or furnishing of marijuana to a minor. Any illicit sales to minors or consumption in the presence of minors comes with substantial penalties including severe fines and jail time.

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Pot legalization raises questions