BRATTLEBORO— Now is the time to align marijuana with tobacco and alcohol in terms of regulation, says local psychiatrist Neil Senior.
"The best would be to have tobacco and marijuana for age 21," he said. "Not for minors, not for public buildings. Birth defect warnings should be on all the products. Health warnings should be on all the products."
A public forum, held Monday at Brattleboro Union High School and lasting roughly 35 minutes, featured 12 speakers in all. Each person signed up for a slot that would not exceed three minutes.
The Senate Judiciary Committee traveled from Bennington where a similar forum was held and they planned on hitting Springfield later. The purpose was to hear from Vermonters on the possible legalization and regulation of marijuana, said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington.
Vermont lawmakers are no strangers to the subject. Hearings began in 2001, Sears said, and a medical marijuana registry was enacted in 2004. Dispensaries were authorized by the Legislature in 2011. Small amounts of marijuana were decriminalized two years later.
"We have taken a measured approach in the past and will continue to do so exploring the appropriate state response for personal use of marijuana by adults," said Sears, noting there are two bills being addressed by his committee right now.
If a proposal were to come forward, Sears said it would need to be aligned with principles laid out by Gov. Peter Shumlin during his State of the State address. That would mean keeping the drug out of the hands of underage children, taxing it so that the black market is eliminated, using the revenue to expand drug prevention programs, improving policing agencies' ability to respond to impaired drivers and banning the sale of edibles until other states figure it out.
If the bill gets three votes from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 29, it will go onto the Senate Finance Committee.
Local attorney Jean Anne Kiewe recalled the late 1980s and early 1990s when she had brought several marijuana cases to Windham County juries. One incident involved a young woman whose boyfriend moved out then reported her for having an ounce-and-a-half of the drug. The woman was not convicted.
The other person was cultivating marijuana to support his family, Kiewe told the committee. He was not convicted either.
"He was a working class Vermonter and he got busted in a trailer in the woods at harvest time," she said. "(The trailer) had hundreds of plants in it."
Kiewe worried whether one bill would "lend itself to monopoly and corporate control of weed" but said legislation is something people have been "leaning on for quite some time."
"I wonder if there's a way to legalize it and not condone the consumption of it by producing and selling it," said Hanako Jones, a student assistant at Brattleboro Union High School.
Concerns involved whether legalization would cause usage of the drug to increase and how it would impact vulnerable populations.
Psychiatrist Lesley Fishelman worried especially about the rate of suicide and the possibilities for moving onto harder drugs after reading a report from the Vermont Health Care Association.
"There are approximately 271 children now in Vermont who use marijuana more than 20 days a month who have attempted suicide. There are only 54 children who have never used marijuana in Vermont who have attempted suicide," Fishelman said. "There are approximately 101,084 heavy users in high school who at some point in the past year have done something with prescription medication that was not legal."
The legislation will affect everyone and "the Vermont brand," she said after speaking also to the issue of driving under the influence. She urged the committee to be careful.
"We should not be seen as a state that condones or wants to celebrate the use of marijuana," said Fishelman.
Others called for putting an end to prohibition, reminding legislators of the days when booze was outlawed.
Prohibition does not work, said Chris Antoniello, owner of a smoke shop and tobacco supply store called Harmony Underground. He believes legalization would be a financial benefit to the state "like no other."
"It's going to put money into parts of the system that are lacking now," he said. "Alcohol is a far bigger problem than anyone is willing to say."
Alex Beck, a coordinator of a young professional group in the area, said he wanted to ensure marijuana would no longer be used as a gateway drug. In his view, it's the way the drug is currently purchased through illegal dealers that leads to escalation and makes it receive the label.
"I think no one under the age of 21 should have access," he said. "One of the reasons why I think our young people who do use cannabis end up in trouble is because the same person selling the cannabis is selling the harder drugs."
Beck also brought attention to the money that could be generated by regulation, saying he believes Vermont could use a new and innovative revenue stream.
Dean Wilson is a seventh generation Vermonter who manages Southern Vermont Wellness, a local medical marijuana dispensary. He said his customers do not fall under one socioeconomic status.
"It's your friends, your neighbors. They're doing it because they want relief," said Wilson. "It doesn't help everyone and it's not for everyone. But it does help a large number of people."
Wilson agreed with Shumlin about postponing the sale of edibles until other states have it under control and taxing the drug at a rate low enough to get rid of the black market.
"I'm very much against young people doing marijuana or other drugs until their brains fully mature," Wilson said. "Recent data is saying the human brain isn't developed until you're 25 years old. The last part of your brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, which is where critical thought processing skills come from. And drugs can slow down the growth of your brain."