The Vermont Senate Government Operations Committee met in early November to hold hearings on how the mechanics of growing and selling marijuana for recreational purposes, might be established—weeks before the full 2016 Legislature returns.
Several columns ago I had requested that this issue be postponed until the state could get many other critical issues under control — the budget, opiate addiction, mental health, Vermont Health Connect, Act 46 and others — my request has fallen on deaf ears.
What I am puzzled by is why the rush and why now? What is behind the need to push through this controversial legislation with so much drug related issues unresolved and getting worse within Vermont and surrounding states? And yes, I do know that there is a difference between opiates and marijuana — subtle as it might be.
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, a poll in the Granite State placed the drug abuse issue in front of the jobs and the economy. On November 8, 2015 the Rutland Herald's editorial stated, " It is ironic that legalization of marijuana is advancing in Vermont at the same time that the state is grappling with a major crisis involving heroin and prescription painkillers."
To the families of the 326 persons who died last year in New Hampshire from overdosing, ironic is a poor word choice. The WSJ's piece noted that the rate of deaths in 2015, in NH, will pass the 2014 total. Is it any wonder that Maggie Hassan, Governor of New Hampshire, is calling for a special session of the legislature to deal with the crisis. Maine's governor, Paul La Page, announced recently that the heroin/opiate crisis in his state is what prompted him to threaten to call up the state's National Guard to assist law enforcement. His state's 208 deaths in 2014, is an epidemic.
Why can't the Legislature understand the crisis we are facing? The November 5, 2015 editorial in the Brattleboro Reformer noted, "... the best first step to addressing the abuse of illicit drugs in our communities is to legalize them and eliminate the criminal element from the enterprise." How disingenuous a statement coming from a paper whose community is surrounded by drugs and the destruction it has created?
The Senate Operations Committee does not have the final word on the legalization issue—it must go to the Senate's Judiciary Committee chaired by Bennington County's long time senator, Dick Sears. Why my deeply respected senator had changed his position, of entertaining legislation on the legalization, is a mystery to me.
The senator's hometown of Bennington is currently under siege by illegal drugs. There is a lack of drug clinics, counselors and almost no mental health providers. How can he ignore the young adults who have over-dosed--- providing a constant flow into his town's hospital emergency room? The scourge is so widespread that the Bennington Banner headlined the problem on November 7th "Emergency overdose kits (Naloxone) are now free for the asking by just going to The Turning Point Center, on Main Street." One can only wonder why employers are leaving Bennington and those who would have chosen southwestern Vermont are looking elsewhere.
Why don't our legislators have the courage and common sense to just push back the lobbyist, the Cannabis advocates and the growers until such time that we resolve the issues we presently have to contend with? The hordes of visitors from out of state who will be depositing millions of dollars to obtain the locally grown crop can wait a few more years.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington