Draconian drug laws which meted out severe punishments and prison stays for simple possession of illegal narcotics were in the driver's seat of the "war on drugs," and notions of decriminalizing or legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana were out-of-favor in state capitals, to say nothing of Washington, D.C.
What a difference 40 or so years makes. Colorado recently became the first state in the union where buying an ounce of marijuana (for in-state residents) is legal. The state of Washington is following close behind. The quality is regulated, taxes are collected, and those seeking to use the drug recreationally need not fear arrest or risk legal repercussions.
Colorado's officials are estimating that their state will collect upwards of $67 million in new tax revenue from marijuana sales. The projected state budget in Vermont this year forecasts a deficit of $70 million before the state's taxing and spending plans are tweaked into balance. There must be more than one state official, from the governor on down, rubbing their chins over the confluence of those two numbers.
Granted, the market in Vermont may not be the equal of Colorado, with a population roughly 10 times the size of Vermont's. But still, $6-7 million in new tax revenue cheerfully turned over by consumers wouldn't hurt here, would it?
That money might go a long way toward solving the real drug crisis in Vermont - heroin and pharmaceutical abuse. There are far too many of our citizens who want and need treatment and help to break out of their dependency. Right now the state is not able to adequately help them. And it's worse if you are unfortunate enough to be living in Bennington County, where there are few if any services readily available. You're in slightly better shape if you live in Chittenden or Washington Counties. How fair is that? But of course, for many folks, legalizing marijuana sales just because Colorado did it, and less than a year after the Legislature here passed a bill which decriminalized possession of very small amounts of marijuana, sends the wrong signal to impressionable youngsters. If possessing small amounts of marijuana by adults is legal, then it can't be all that bad for you, they might think. And the science around that question is at best unclear.
There's plenty of reason to believe that especially for teenagers, excessive marijuana use (and what's "excessive" is another tough question) retards brain development and impairs - permanently - the development of critical thinking functions. Excessive use of the drug after someone reaches the age of 18 or 21 probably isn't a good idea either, but the potential for permanent harm may not be as great at that point.
Should Vermont's lawmakers pass eventually pass a bill to legalize small amounts of marijuana for private use, it's entirely possible we would see a short-term uptick by under-18 year-olds. Studies indicate that many of them, though not a majority, are already using the drug. Part of the thrill may be the risk. If legalized, it's more likely that it will eventually assume a status similar to alcohol; enticing, but many might be inclined to wait until they can consume it legally, without fear of legal consequences. It would be interesting to rediscover what the pattern around underage drinking was during the 1930s when the wrongheaded Prohibition laws were lifted and alcohol sales became legal again. Another point to ponder is whether legalization, like the lifting of Prohibition, would take the business out of the hands of criminal gangs or modern day bootleggers.
And along with diverting some of that tax money into treatment programs for those addicted to heroin and other nastier drugs, some could be used to beef up drug education programs for middle and high-school age students, to help them make some intelligent choices about whether using marijuana prematurely - or at all - makes sense to them.
A bill has been sponsored and entered into the Legislative hopper by state Sen. David Zuckerman of Chittenden County, which would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. According to a recent article in VTDigger.org, Zuckerman's bill would create a regulatory framework for the wholesale and retailing of marijuana under the authority of the Liquor Control Board, and impose a $50 per ounce excise tax on all sales. It would allow people age 21 or older to possess two ounces or three plants, while maintaining criminal penalties for quantities in excess of that limit or marijuana sold outside the regulatory system. The penalties for underage possession would be the same as those for alcohol.
This probably won't be the year in which such a bill, sensible though it is, will pass muster in the Statehouse. It's an election year after all, and groundbreaking measures like this make many members of the Legislature understandably uncomfortable. This would be a great year to form a study committee to examine the pros and cons, bring in experts on the dangers of underage consumption, poll a few youngsters on what they thought, watch and see what happens in Colorado, talk to counterparts in Washington state and Oregon, where similar legalization is also being closely looked at, and come back in 2015 with the ground prepared. And with legislators eager to find new sources of revenue to pay the state's bills.
One thing we know - raising the property tax rate five cents or more each year is not an option. More on that next week, or soon.
In a perfect world, perhaps no one would feel the need to "unwind" by drinking alcohol, smoking or ingesting marijuana, or other potentially harmful drugs. But people do, and they've been doing so for a very long time. It may not, as New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out in a thought-provoking piece published around New Year's Day, take you where you want to go. But people have been using, and in some cases, misusing, these substances for a very long time as well. Somehow, the sun has come up and the sun has set. That's not meant to cavalierly dismiss the risks; the goal here is to fine tune the risks and consequences more rationally. Just as - finally! - society at large is getting comfortable with former outliers like gay marriage, another child of the sixties can come in from the cold of the "culture wars."