Post-pot legalization prospects hazy as Legislature grapples with next steps


courtesy of the Office of the Lieutenant Governor

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman speaking in the Statehous following the passage of H.511

When Vermont legislators reconvened in January for the start of the new legislative session, they wasted no time, taking up marijuana legalization bill H.511 on the very first day.

While their haste left some Vermonters wondering what the big hurry was, the road to legalization was anything but short and its pros continue to stack up against the cons.

In his executive order creating the Marijuana Advisory Commission, Governor Phil Scott laid out the reasons Vermont’s lawmakers may want to consider legalization.

“Vermont must adopt a balanced approach to marijuana legalization which takes into consideration realities of current consumption levels, legalization in neighboring jurisdictions and facts regarding local impacts, the risk of harm to our youth, impaired driving and the social consequences of drug use and addiction, particularly in the context of the state’s opioid crisis,” Scott said in the order.

Vermont was the ninth state in the country to legalize recreational use, but it didn’t go as far as its New England neighbors Maine and Massachusetts, which have already established tax-and-regulate systems.

Lamoille County’s senator Rich Westman has supported marijuana reform throughout the process but cautioned against doing so for the wrong reasons.

“If you support it for the taxes, you are on the wrong track,” Westman said. He feels that the cause for legalization lies more in the need to better regulate the drug and make sure dangerous strains aren’t spread throughout the state.

Scott’s approach was more libertarian, however, focusing on individuals’ liberties while limiting youth access and enhancing roadway safety, rather than trying to bring an underground market into the light under full regulation.

H.511 does well in this regard, establishing stiff penalties for furnishing minors with opportunities to use. It also defines where and how to legally transport marijuana in a vehicle and creates a slew of marijuana-specific traffic violations.

But the reality of current consumption, as Scott put it in his executive order, is that an estimated 80,000 of Vermont’s nearly 625,000 residents use marijuana on a monthly basis, according to data from the RAND Corporation.

Vermont’s population is decidedly white, coming in at 94.6 percent “white alone,” according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s curious, then, that non-white drivers are four times more likely to be stopped and searched on Vermont roadways.

Laura Subin, director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, is a staunch advocate for a fully regulated and taxed system and said that this racial disparity is just another way that marijuana prohibition has failed.

“That data, coupled with the fact that marijuana enforcement has a history of disproportionately affecting minorities, suggests that stops and searches unfairly impact communities of color,” Subin said. “…Civil penalties for marijuana violations are also significant for low income Vermonters.”

The final section of H.511 explicitly takes aim at these issues saying that a “comprehensive and regulatory structure” would help the state revise drug laws to help prevent racial disparity in policing, as well as “substantially reduce the illegal marijuana market.”

Despite a traditional, prohibition-style approach, the RAND Corporation estimates that Vermonters collectively spend about $175 million a year to consume between 30,000 and 50,000 pounds of marijuana, maintaining a thriving underground market.

Legal advocate for Smart Approaches to Marijuana Kevin Ellis says that following the Washington D.C. model (which Vermont did) can enhance the underground market instead of weakening it.

According to Ellis, this type of model can create a sort of “gift economy,” where businesses get around the no sales law by selling other items like cups and shirts at high prices, then throwing in a “free” gift of marijuana.

This is exactly the type of scenario Rep. Don Turner hoped to avoid when he proposed a last-minute amendment to H.511 that would have established a full-scale regulated market and tax system.

Though the republican lawmaker has starkly opposed legalization, he claimed the move wasn’t political in nature, it was just responsible.

“This is one that I feel very strongly that I had to try it,” Turner said. “And you know, if this does go ahead and pass, I hope that they do the tax and regulate versus just Wild West.”

From the standpoint of local government management, Turner said he sees the bill as another unfunded mandate.

Taxation to help fund education and enforcement has been one of the strongest arguments for a regulated market thus far, but opponents say that the idea hasn’t been vetted enough.

Numbers that have come out of Colorado and Washington state have proven the model of a regulated marketplace to be quite successful.

State-regulated stores in Colorado reported more than $1 billion in sales in the first 10 months of 2016 and took only eight months to reach that number in 2017.

Washington state generated more than $255 million in excise tax revenue from marijuana sales in both 2016 and 2017, while the Department of Taxation in Nevada reported generating $3.68 million of tax revenue in the first month of marijuana sales in the state.

Tourism also saw a boost in Colorado when a record-breaking 77.7 million people visited the state — a 30 percent increase from 2012, which also saw visitor-spending increase 14 percent to about $19.1 billion.

In a state like Vermont that similarly relies on tourism, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a tax-and-regulate system.

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman sees taxation and regulation as completing the process of moving forward and as a means to shore up some areas of the state that are lacking financially.

At a recent legislative breakfast hosted by the Lamoille County Chamber of Commerce, several voters expressed their concerns over budget cuts to already underfunded programs such as healthcare, mental health services and education.

Zuckerman used the chance to talk about how a tax-and-regulate system for marijuana could be helpful to not only restore much-needed dollars to desperate budgets, but also to create jobs and opportunity here in Vermont.

But Zuckerman sees a regulated market as more than just a step towards financial well-being. It could also be a step to reducing youth access and helping curb the rampant opioid problem.

“A drug dealer doesn’t check IDs or care how old anybody is,” Zuckerman said. “They just want to make some money, and in fact they may offer them something else more addictive to get more repeat customers.”

According to Zuckerman, customers must show ID to even walk into a store, let alone purchase any marijuana products.

The discussion of marijuana in regard to Vermont’s opioid problem has also been plentiful.

Both Zuckerman and Subin outlined two different ways that a regulated market could help combat the opioid problem.

The first is by simply having a safe place to purchase marijuana. Subin says that this would dramatically reduce the likelihood that marijuana users will be offered opiates or other dangerous drugs.

The second is the use of marijuana to alleviate chronic pain in lieu of prescribing other, varying kinds of painkillers.

“Cannabis is starting to be shown as both an alternative for some of the pain for which people are getting OxyContin and other gateway opioids,” Zuckerman said. “So why not use cannabis more and opioid-based pharmaceuticals less?”

Another seemingly obvious way a regulated marketplace could help would be to use the tax revenue to fund treatment, counseling and addiction education for opioid users.

Though Vermont has been on a steady path to marijuana reform since the House first passed a medical marijuana bill in 2001, there are those who oppose it, even here in Lamoille County.

While both of Johnson’s representatives, Matt Hill and Dan Noyes, voted in favor of H.511, three of the four other representatives in Lamoille County voted against it.

Representatives Heidi Scheuermann, Bernie Juskiewicz and Gary Nolan all voted against the bill, with Dave Yacavone being the only other Lamoille representative who voted in favor.