Rand officials to visit state next week to plan marijuana study


The international, nonprofit research organization was chosen to conduct the study, which was mandated in a bill passed by the Legislature last session.

The state will pay $20,000 toward the study, which will be augmented by as much as $100,000 in private donations, officials said Friday.

Passed in late April, S.247 eliminated the 1,000-person cap on the number of people who can use medical marijuana dispensaries. The Legislature added a mandate that the state conduct a study on "possible taxing systems" for Vermont, potential costs and benefits for the state, and the experiences of other states. The results of the study are due to the Legislature by Jan. 15.

Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said the study will cover a much more comprehensive list of topics than tax policy.

It will include estimates of marijuana usage in Vermont, long-term public health implications, effects on driving and highway safety, savings for law enforcement and lessons Vermont could learn from legalization in Colorado and Washington.

"[Gov. Peter Shumlin] was clear with me that he wanted to have a thorough and objective study of all of the public policies, not just taxation," Spaulding said. "There are a lot of things that will be tailored to Vermont's particular situation."

Rand Corp. declined to comment on the research until the organization's senior policy analyst Beau Kilmer meets with Vermont officials next week. More details on the study would be released then, Rand spokesperson Warren Robak said.

The state will pay Rand $20,000 for the research. Spaulding said that Rand has raised about $100,000 from GiveWell, a nonprofit organization that researches charities and advises donors.

Neither Rand nor GiveWell, Spaulding said, have a position on marijuana legalization.

"We were looking for someone who wasn't going to make a case that we legalize or not legalize," Spaulding said, adding that Rand is "very well-respected."

Vermont Health Commissioner Harry Chen, Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and other state officials will participate, Spaulding said. Rand will also include "public outreach, hearings of some kind," though the specifics have not been determined.

The report generated by Rand should give Vermont legislators the facts they need to have a well-informed debate next winter, one lawmaker says.

"I think the study will help with legislators and the public who inherently think it's a good idea but want evidence they can hold up to show people," said state Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden. Zuckerman said he will propose a marijuana regulation and legalization bill in the 2015 legislative session.

"It can work in other states," Zuckerman said. "We just have to make some changes."

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Washington and Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. In January, Colorado's first retail shops opened to sell recreational marijuana. Just this month, Washington released its first store licenses to sell the drug.

By the end of April, recreational and medical cannabis sales in Colorado totaled $202,478,690 and by June 1, the state had raised more than $5.7 million in licenses, taxes and fees.

The Colorado legalization law went into effect at the beginning of this year. In the past five months, the state has raised $25 million in tax revenues, according to a report from the Denver Business Journal.

"The narrative from Colorado has been 'so far, so good,'" said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group advocating for regulation and legalization. "The sky clearly hasn't fallen."

The New York Times reports, however, that the law has also resulted in a proliferation of edible marijuana products, including candies, that are attractive to children, an increase in the number of residents driving while intoxicated and several deaths.

In 2013, Vermont lawmakers decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and Zuckerman said it's not unimaginable that a legalization bill could pass in 2015.

"I think there's significant public support and whenever there's public support, there's a chance that it passes," Zuckerman said, adding that he's hopeful that a legalization bill would pass in the next biennium.

"Marijuana's been in the public discourse for 15 years and I think just now politicians are catching up to the general public," Zuckerman said. "There are certainly some roadblocks.

"I'm convinced that the current system is not working," he said.

Spaulding said the study will dictate whether "it's the right time" for a policy change.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has not taken a stance on legalization, though "the governor has stated that Vermont shouldn't be the first one out of the box," Spaulding said.

The study was not proposed by Shumlin, though the governor has long been courted by marijuana lobbyist groups. In the 2011-2012 election cycle, he received $8,000 from the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Governor Shumlin has always been very supportive of taking a good, hard look at marijuana policy," Simon said.

Simon said that though MPP had pushed to eliminate the cap on medicinal marijuana last session, he hadn't been aware of the Rand study until it was announced Tuesday morning.

"There's absolutely no connection," Spaulding confirmed.


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