Serving on both Senate committees that have been dealing with marijuana legalization for the past year, I've seen a lot. Over 100 hours of testimony, reams of paperwork ranging from projected catastrophe to fiscal utopia, and eight public forums all around the state. As someone who doesn't imbibe, I like to think I view the issue from a neutral position.
The issue isn't going away. An estimated 80,000 Vermonters are consuming marijuana while spending upwards of $225,000,000.00 annually to do so. Polls indicate a clear majority of Vermonters support legalization, overwhelmingly so in the 18 to 44 year old age range. As legalization initiatives are introduced all around us, how should we respond?
First let's acknowledge legitimate concerns. Minors with developing brains should not consume marijuana. The black market produces a more potent and sometimes dangerous product. Finally, we have a more serious problem with opiates. Legislation should address these concerns. So enter S.241, a bill just passed by the Senate to "legalize" marijuana. It endeavors to balance the public's desire for consumption with these concerns.
The "legalization" part is actually quite limited and doesn't take place until January of 2018. It "legalizes" only those over age 21 who are in possession of one ounce or less. This narrow group was "decriminalized" two years ago and this bill simply changes their status to "legal." The bill also creates a limited number of licensed and state-monitored cultivation and retail establishments. (Towns are able to opt out of hosting them, but if not they'll retain all zoning and planning rights.)
The bill does not allow for consumption outdoors, in "lounges," or in cars. Employers are not required to permit consumption or change work policies. Landlords can prohibit consumption in rental units. Sales of edibles, underage possession, possession of more than one ounce or plants, or unlicensed sales remain subject to criminal or civil sanctions.
The bill creates substantial license fees for cultivators and retailers, along with a 25 percent tax on sales. That income is a self-sustaining revenue source that does not currently exist. The money will not be placed in the general fund. Instead it is divided into four parts:
Law enforcement: The current weapon against drugged driving is a properly trained police officer called a "Drug Recognition Expert," or "DRE." They combat all drugged driving, not just marijuana-related cases. The bill increases the number of DRE's and also provides for improvements to our state lab to assist with these prosecutions.
Prevention and education: First let's be clear about marijuana as a "gateway drug." The vast majority of marijuana users will never end up abusing harder substances. However, many of those abusing harder substances began with marijuana. Unfortunately, marijuana purchases are now conducted through drug dealers out to make profits and who never ask for proof of age. Getting you hooked on a harder substance increases their profit. The bill disrupts those dealers with state-monitored retail environments. Proceeds will increase prevention and education programs against all substance abuse, mirroring our successful tobacco eradication efforts.
Treatment: Marijuana has been consumed in this state for many decades, but the recent increase in crime, family dysfunction and addiction is not marijuana's doing. Our opiate problem is now public enemy number one. Proceeds from this new revenue stream will be dedicated to opiate addiction programs in conjunction with prevention and education.
Administration: The final portion of proceeds from this new, self-sustainable revenue stream will be dedicated to its administration, thus not becoming a burden to tax payers.
S.241 recognizes public reality and legitimate concerns. Let's dispel fear and support it.
Joe Benning is a Vermont State Senator representing the Caledonia-Orange District.