Weeding the garden

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With a projected adjournment date of early May staring them in the face, lawmakers in Montpelier are struggling to finish work on a variety of legislative bills. One of those which has received a fair amount of attention, both in-state and beyond, is the proposed legalization of small sales of marijuana. Several competing versions have been discussed, and it is very possible lawmakers will be unable to come to a consensus around one particular bill, leaving this to be an issue decided another day.

That wouldn't necessarily be the end of the world. It has been argued, and it makes sense, that there are many more pressing and urgent concerns facing Vermont that whether or not to legalize possession of an ounce or less of pot. Housing, jobs, renewable energy, property taxes, and successfully implementing Act 46 is a short list that comes readily to mind. Did we mention high property taxes?

But neither is the marijuana bill, or bills, irrelevant and unimportant. As many lawmakers have said repeatedly, it's more critical to pass the right bill, with appropriate safeguards against impaired driving, and ensuring that any legislation which might be passed doesn't make it easier than it already may be for underage youngsters to obtain it, than to just pass any bill for the headline value and the possible small boost to the state's economy. Is a reasonable and effective bill within reach, however? We think so. Hopefully it would be an amalgam that doesn't veer too far from the one the state Senate passed earlier in the session, which legalized possession of marijuana and established a mechanism for its regulated sale to go into effect in 2018. But that bill encountered a rocky reception in the House, and passage of any kind of legislation looked dim until last Friday, when the House Ways and Means Committee reported out a bill which legalized possession of 1 ounce of pot and allowed for cultivation of two marijuana plants in a person's home. Permits would have to be acquired first, according to this amended version of the Senate bill.

It's good that legislators are studying this question closely, because it would be a significant change, especially at a time when everyone is rightly worried about a heroin and opiate scourge that is wreaking a lot of unneeded damage on communities and families. Heroin kills, and whatever can be done to reverse this epidemic must be tried.

But there isn't a lot of evidence to link the upsurge of heroin use with marijuana, even if it were to be legalized. Part of the problem with the data is that there isn't as much of it as would be good to have, because of the decades-long prohibition on it by the federal government meant the amount of research available on the drug's effects is minimal and less than we need. While it is likely that some people found their way to heroin via the marijuana gateway, many, many more have through prescription painkillers, an issue doctors and the pharmaceutical industry are only now beginning to squarely address.

It's impossible to know for sure until we cross the legalization bridge, but our guess is that a bill which does OK possession and sale of small amounts of pot isn't going to change usage very much. It is absolutely critical that marijuana use be discouraged for youngsters under 18 or 21 years of age. It has been compellingly shown to have adverse effects on young brain development. You could probably say the same for alcohol. But one virtue of legalizing and regulating the sale of marijuana for those over 21 might be that underage use might just as easily decline, or at least not be any worse than what it is now. Let's be honest — legalizing pot consumption is unlikely to change current consumption patterns at all. Those who want to get it now, can. Those who don't, don't. Whether it's legal or not won't make much difference, at least over time and after the initial novelty effect, if there is one, wears off.

What will make a difference though is that by regulating the sale of the drug, and assuming it is priced correctly (high enough to be a money maker for the state, but not so high that black market sellers remain in business because they can offer the product at substantial enough discount) is that the sales will go through official channels with certified qualities, and the state, not drug smugglers, will reap the profits. Does it seem funny to then turn around and use the revenue for drug education? Perhaps. But such drug education is desperately needed to warn kids from the dangers of much harder drugs, like cocaine and heroin, which are out there and lethal.

Put another way — if regulating the sale of marijuana pretty much along comparable lines as we presently do with alcohol yields a little extra money for state coffers, puts a few bad guys out of business, and draws in a few extra tourists for the novelty value who may then spend a little more money in shops, restaurants and lodging — then that's not a bad thing. The question lawmakers will have to resolve is whether that is offset by the negatives of stoned driving and a possible uptick in underage use.

Studies indicate a lot of Vermonters, of all age groups, use cannabis. The war on drugs needs to be more precisely targeted on opioids and the people who traffic in them.

The novelty value may not last long anyway. California is moving rapidly, it seems, towards legalization, which would have a vastly larger effect on the marijuana industry than anything Vermont does. So are other New England states. If we want to capture a little of the pot tourism bonanza, if that's what it turns out to be — then the time for passage is now.

Then our lawmakers can get back to work on all those other pesky problems, like tax rates.

We are aware that most, if not close to all, law enforcement officials in Vermont are opposed to legalization. We respect their viewpoint. They are the ones who will have to determine if someone is driving under the influence or posing a danger to themselves or others. The tests for establishing the red line on pot isn't quite as firm as those in place for alcohol. Their views deserve the weight they have received.

But we think that on balance, there's more to be gained than lost through legalizing marijuana use along the lines of the bill which passed the Senate, and hope that before the gavel falls to adjourn this year's Legislative session, such a bill will be on its way to the governor's desk for signing. We haven't always agreed with Gov. Shumlin on the issues, who's not had a good week with the stunning and wide-ranging EB-5 mess in the Northeast Kingdom. But here is one case where his views and ours closely align.


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