Neuroscientist adds voice to warnings about legal pot


Opponents of legalizing marijuana gathered under the Statehouse dome Wednesday for Prevention Awareness Day, holding workshops and discussions regarding substance abuse and the possible impacts of legal weed in the Green Mountain State.

The events were organized by Prevention Works VT, a coalition aimed at reducing drug and alcohol abuse among young people.

Dr. Bertha Madras, a neuroscientist from Harvard Medical School, was given an award for her prevention efforts, and she offered her own thoughts against legalization in a news conference.

Portraying Vermont as being at a crossroads over whether to legalize and normalize cannabis use, Madras said political talks on the issue have been devoid of scientific considerations.

"On one side it's led by a number of talking points, (and) the certain suppression of scientific information," Madras said. "On the other side it's led by scientific evidence, as well as global concerns about the legalization movement."

"Vermont has a choice to make," she added. "And the choice should be decided primarily, and almost specifically, on the basis of what is best for public health."

Madras pointed to research showing adverse impacts on brain development for young marijuana users and said potential tax money aimed at improving social and medical conditions for drug users would not be enough to contain the public health fallout from an increase in use.

She said Senate bills aimed at keeping marijuana out of the hands of those under 21 would not work, pointing to Colorado, a legal weed zone that ranks No. 1 for pot use among young people ages 12 to 17.

"To conceive of a law that is going to restrict it to 21 and older is unrealistic, and it's not going to work," Madras said. "It hasn't worked for tobacco, it hasn't worked for alcohol, it's not going to work for marijuana."

She echoed a number of public health concerns expressed by the Vermont Department of Health, including that marijuana impairs social functions and may increase psychotic symptoms.

Madras acknowledged, as did the state, that some of the research on the impacts of marijuana is not entirely sound.

Prevention Works VT is one of a number of groups lobbying for and against legalization, including Smart Approaches to Marijuana-VT and the Marijuana Policy Project.

As part of its lobbying efforts, the Marijuana Policy Project released an ad against marijuana prohibition that has been playing on regional TV stations.

While Madras spoke about the dangers of increased drug access in Vermont, political leaders in both parties appear to be open to legalization in Vermont.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on a bipartisan marijuana bill Friday, and a majority of members seemed poised to support it.

Details are still being hammered out, and Gov. Peter Shumlin put his stamp of approval Tuesday on a proposal for a modified marijuana bill from Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington.

Sears asked the committee — and later, a Democratic caucus — to modify the bill co-sponsored by Sens. Jeanette White, D-Windham, and Joe Benning, R-Caledonia.

Sears suggested adding language that would move a quarter of the tax money brought in by legal pot to the state's general fund; bar people from growing the plant at home; and beef up penalties for adults who sell the drug to minors.

"I've never supported homegrown, indoor grown," Shumlin said Tuesday, in accordance with Sears' request. "I think as the bill travels, there's a conversation about whether you have a plant or two in your garden, during grow months, where you're not facing all the indoor growing problems the state is facing, all sorts of mold problems, all kinds of problems. I'm willing to listen to that debate."

If approved by Judiciary, the marijuana bill would go to the Senate Finance Committee, where pro-legalization Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, is the chairman.


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