Vermont marijuana study to focus on use, costs and precedents


MONTPELIER -- The Rand Corp. met last week with the Shumlin administration to lay out plans for a study on the impact of legalizing marijuana in Vermont.

Rand researcher Beau Kilmer, who will lead the project, met with Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding and an internal working group, including representatives from the Agency of Agriculture and the departments of Public Safety, Health and Liquor Control, to discuss a preliminary work plan for the study.

Vermont was to sign the contract with Rand this week and the research will begin Monday. The study will be used to inform lawmakers on the benefits and pitfalls of legalization.

Kilmer, co-director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center, has worked with California and Washington officials on marijuana legalization. In 2012, he co-wrote a book "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know."

Kilmer said he's put together an "all-star team" of Rand researchers and policy experts.

"We have a lot of experience working in this field and working together," he said. "I'm confident we'll be able to produce a product that will serve as a nice foundation for serious dialogue on this controversial issue."

The state will pay the Rand Corp., an international, research nonprofit, $20,000 for the study. Rand has raised the remainder of the necessary funding - slightly over $100,000 - from Good Ventures, a philanthropic foundation that makes grants in coordination with GiveWell, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that researches charities and advises donors.

Neither Rand, Good Ventures, or Givewell has any formal position on marijuana legalization, the groups say.

The Rand team will conduct the research from California, where Rand is based, and spend time in Montpelier, speaking with public health and law enforcement officers.

When he returns to the office Monday, the research will get underway, Kilmer said. Rand will present its findings to the Legislature by Jan. 15.

The study will include three sections. Rand will "assess the marijuana landscape" in Vermont, estimating the size of market and usage across the state, and the cost for the criminal justice system in prohibiting the substance. The study will also look at lessons learned from Colorado's and Washington's marijuana legalization laws passed in 2012 and lay out Vermont's policy options for taxation and regulation.

"There's a lot of policy space between prohibition and what those states are doing," Kilmer said.

Besides for-profit sales, marijuana could be sold by collectives and co-ops, solely by nonprofit organizations with a public health focus, or be run by a state monopoly.

"There are pros and cons to all these choices. Our job is sort of to say here are the potential consequences to some of these options," he said.

The Rand study will also discuss taxing potential. Colorado and Washington tax marijuana on the basis of price, "But you can imagine taxing it as a function of THC levels," said Kilmer, referring to the principal psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

"What we're not going to say is that Vermont should definitely or definitely not legalize marijuana," he said.

The study was mandated by the Legislature, as part of S.247, a bill passed in April. The bill eliminated the 1,000-person cap on the number of people who can use medical marijuana dispensaries and called for the state to conduct a study on the regulation of marijuana in Vermont.

Legalization, Spaulding said, is "being considered more and more around the country. I think there's going to be significant interest. Whether it's enough to push this issue forward, it's too soon to say."

State Health Commissioner Harry Chen said he "can't be supportive" of legalization.

"Marijuana is the number one reasons adolescents seek treatment in Vermont," he said.

The DOH website stated that the fiscal year 2011, more than 1,400 Vermonters were treated for marijuana disorders, 68 percent of whom were under the age of 25.

That year, treatment costs for Vermont totaled $2.1 million.

The 2013 Youth Risk Survey reported that 39 percent of students reported ever using marijuana and 24 percent of high school students said they had used marijuana in the past 30 days, compared to 33 percent who reported drinking alcohol in the past month. The three health concerns for the Department of Health are overdose, treatment and driving under the influence, Chen said.

Nevertheless, Chen said he doesn't oppose the Rand study because he wants lawmakers' decision to be rooted in facts, rather than speculation.

"I can sit here and say 'no way, no how,' but I want to have all the information to make an informed decision," Chen said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin says he will wait for Rand's report to formulate an opinion on marijuana legalization.

"I'm very grateful that Colorado and Washington state have gone first in pioneering the legalization of marijuana because there's a lot to learn and we'll learn a lot from them," Shumlin said at a news conference in Waitsfield on Tuesday. "Until we see that study, my view is let's let Washington and Colorado deal with this one and we'll learn from either their successes or their mistakes."

In past years, Shumlin has gained the backing of the national lobbying group the Marijuana Policy Project.

As the study unfolds, Spaulding said, the state will be engaged in the process. Kilmer will return to Vermont to meet with law enforcement, government agencies and outside groups.

"My hope for the report in the end is that it'll allow us to make the threshold decision if this is the road that Vermont should go down at this time," Spaulding said.

The study may set a precedent for similar marijuana legislation around the U.S., Kilmer said.

"This is still is a controversial issue and a lot of states are trying to figure out what to do," he said. "I applaud Vermont for taking the initiative to say 'Hey, let's think through the issues.' It's very forward thinking."


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