Windham County sheriff recommends marijuana legalization

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MONTPELIER >> During a hearing before the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark came out in support of the legalization of marijuana.

"By eliminating the prohibition on marijuana and the need to utilize funding for enforcing a failed policy, we as a state can focus on what is important," said Clark, reading from a prepared statement on Thursday, Jan. 21. "We will have more resources and can focus on those whom are addicted to any substance, whether it is heroin, alcohol or marijuana. We can also put our efforts into educating our children in a more realistic way. Furthermore, we can be more effective in keeping our highways safe for all users."

In his prepared statement, Clark recommended the state legalize marijuana no earlier than July 2018 to give Vermont law enforcement officers the time for training and to develop programming, procedures and education policies.

"Furthermore, it provides time for government agencies, public, private and nonprofit companies to develop and vet policies as they relate to work environment and employment conditions," he said.

By pushing the date out to 2018 it gives municipalities the chance to develop policies related to retail sales and cultivation of marijuana, according to Clark.

"Towns and cities should have the ability to locally control places and times of sale as well as public use," he said. "This would be consistent with liquor laws wherein towns have a local liquor control board and the ability to have ordinances about open containers and public consumption."

Clark admitted moving from policies of prohibition to a "more controlled and regulated system" has its challenges.

"Not unlike Vermont's change to allow gay marriage, there will be those who believe the change will only result in catastrophic outcomes," he said. "When Vermont takes the bold step to legalize marijuana, I will be as proud as I was on the day I walked my daughter down the aisle when she married her wife."

In his prepared remarks, Clark noted a conversation he had with a second-in-command of a small police department in Colorado, a state that has legalized marijuana.

"He said his officers and others in the area are making more DUI drug arrests," Clark said. "He did not believe there was an increase in the number of people using marijuana and driving, but the officers were now more focused and had received better training on the operator's ability to operate safely. According to him, he anticipated many problems associated with the legalization, but to date they have not materialized."

S.95, "An act relating to regulation and taxation of marijuana," and S.241, "An act relating to personal possession and cultivation of cannabis and the regulation of commercial cannabis establishments," were up for discussion before the committee all this week.

Clark, with more than 25 years of law enforcement experience, came out in support of S.95, which would eliminate the prohibition of marijuana and make it legal for personal use by adults over the age of 21.

"The so-called War on Drugs has not made our communities and highways safer," testified Clark. "In many ways, prohibition has created a system that has caused more harm than good."

Clark said that approximately 80,000 Vermont residents use marijuana in a given month, adding that prohibition does nothing more than make criminals out of law-abiding citizens. Clark also noted that prohibition has created an illicit market in which dealers can take advantage of their clients and also allows "unscrupulous dealers to sell to children."

"By legalizing marijuana, the state and local governments will have control of the market ... and we will have the support of licensed cultivators and sellers in keeping the black market dealers out of the state and away from our children."

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell said he has great respect for Clark and his position, "The substance and sincerity of his statement to the Judiciary Committee being among them. I have stated my belief that marijuana will eventually be legalized in Vermont and my hope that a reasoned regulatory structure will be established to responsibly allow for its legal possession and use."

Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald told the Reformer that while he is not in favor of legalization, if the Legislature does decide to do so, he hopes it takes a long-term, measured approach before ending prohibition.

"They should have the discussion now, talk to some of the states that have legalized," said Fitzgerald. "This is going to take years. We are not going to get good data in just a year."

He said he did not agree with Clark's July 2018 recommendation. "While we may want to talk about legalizing marijuana, we need at least 10 years of data and research before the Legislature can come to a well-rounded, thought-out conclusion on how this is going to impact our community. Don't make it legal first and then try to figure out how to deal with it after."

Fitzgerald also said while he respects Clark's experience as a police officer, he disagrees with his position.

Debby Haskins, the executive director of the Vermont branch of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization, also gave testimony to the committee. "There was a lot of great testimony from both sides. But I believe it is the wrong thing to do for all Vermonters."

SAM-VT is asking the Legislature to consider the mental health affects of marijuana addiction, as well as the effects on Vermont's more vulnerable populations. Haskins also mentioned there are many factors that need to be considered, such as banking, advertising and home growers versus commercial growers. But most importantly, she said, the state has to consider the impacts marijuana abuse has on families, individuals and communities.

"I understand that many people can use marijuana and alcohol and it's not a problem," she said. "But there are plenty of people who use marijuana who are addicted or have mental health issues. Their families and their communities are impacted. Legalizing marijuana is not going to make us a healthier state, it's not going to make our kids healthier or safer and it's not going to make parents better parents."

Haskins, like Fitzgerald, encouraged the Legislature to take a go-slow approach and watch how legalization plays out in Washington and Oregon.

Dr. Nels Closter, who operates Hawthorne Recovery in Bennington and Habit OPCO, the methadone clinic in Brattleboro, also testified on Thursday.

"I suggested the Legislature consider the sacrifices against the benefits," said Kloster, with a focus on the difference between those who abuse marijuana and those who just use it. "About 20 percent of those who use marijuana are dependent or addicted. They account for two-thirds of the use days and about 80 percent of the marijuana that is consumed. Legalization is for the benefit of those who have controlled usage and not for those who abuse. The harm to the abusers is greater than the pleasure for controlled users."

Kloster also believes the state should take a go-slow approach to legalization.

"Research takes time," he said. "We need a broad spectrum to make better decisions and make sure the resources are in place if we do make it legal. There needs to be a really thorough process around it."

Cassandra Holloway, the director of the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition, expressed great concern about marijuana legalization. "Our children are hearing that marijuana use is safe, healthy and fun for them to use and this perception will lead to increased youth use. There is not enough effective funding currently for preventing and regulating tobacco and alcohol and here we are considering another drug to legalize."

Holloway pointed out that marijuana addiction is the No. 1 reason youth are going into treatment today and the state doesn't have enough resources to address it now.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has come out in support of legalization, but with five caveats: the right bill should keep marijuana out of the hands of minors; keep taxes low enough to lure people out of the black market; fund prevention programs; devise stronger laws against driving under the influence; and exclude the sale of marijuana edibles until the state has a chance to conduct more research in an effort to strap the appropriate regulations to these types of products.

These guidelines are in agreement with those proposed by Windham County Senator Jeanette White, who is the sponsor of S. 241. White said the hearings have been going well in Montpelier, but she bristles when people mention recreational use. "Most Vermonters have made a reasoned decision on how we should regulate adult use of marijuana and most are in favor of it."

She also said the people who are advising a go-slow approach will never be satisfied with studies.

"For those people, there will never be enough data," she said.

She also noted that in Colorado, legalization was forced upon the policy makers by a referendum, while in Vermont, legislators are taking the lead. "In Colorado, they had to figure out how to implement legalization. In Vermont we are doing it the opposite way."

While increasing tax revenues are a good thing for the Green Mountain State, said White, legalization for adult use would take the criminality out of its use.

"People who smoke or grow marijuana want to become law-abiding citizens."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.


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