Our Opinion: Making Vermont even more green

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In a state renown for its localvore movement and its homegrown products such as maple syrup and apples, it's not too much of a surprise that some Vermonters believe making the Green Mountain State just a little greener can be a good — and profitable — move for Vermont.

"I would like to see marijuana legalized to make it a localvore artisanal product," said "Cindy" from West Townshend, during last week's televised public hearing held at interactive sites around Vermont.

When the members of the Legislature return to Montpelier in January, one of the first things they will receive is a report from the Drug Policy Research Center at the Rand Corporation. The study is not intended to recommend for or against legalization, but instead is meant to outline policy areas that need to be considered in advance.

Those areas include the price of marijuana, locations for sale, how to tax its sale, how to work with the federal government (which still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug, on par with heroin) and how to train law enforcement to recognize drivers who are impaired by marijuana. Included in the report will be an estimate on how much the state can expect to recoup in new revenue (some estimates come in around $15 million).

Four states and Washington, D.C., now have legalized marijuana via ballot initiatives. The four states have turned over production of marijuana to the commercial sector, which guarantees a whole set of issues apart from the effects of the plant. But in D.C., a novel idea called "grow and give" was approved by voters. Under this initiative, any resident of D.C. will be allowed to grow marijuana and give it away, but not sell it.

"Granted, buying at the store would be more convenient than home growing ... and would therefore compete more effectively against illegal growing and selling," wrote Mark A.R. Kleinman for the New York Times. "But turning cannabis over to for-profit vendors carries two great risks: Increased drug abuse, and illegal exports from the district to the rest of the country."

The revenues from taxing marijuana, or enacting a state sales monopoly on marijuana like New Hampshire does with alcohol, may be too tempting for any legislator struggling with balancing a budget to resist. And it's foolish to assume if Vermont ever does legalize marijuana that it won't be commercialized and will remain some hippie dream of growing a crop in your backyard. Our whole society is built on the profit motive, whether we like it or not.

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Perhaps a middle ground could be found, where people could be allowed to grow marijuana for their own consumption and it can also be for sale for those who don't have the desire to grow their own.

Another question the Legislature will be struggling with: How to prevent legalized marijuana from falling into the hands of anyone under the age of 21.

"The evidence is mounting that marijuana is addictive and harmful to the users and especially harmful to adolescents," said Deborah Haskins, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana — Vermont, adding that emerging science shows that marijuana use is linked not only with addiction, but also with increased highway safety crashes, IQ loss, and poor academic and job performance.

SAM-VT wants Vermont to delay consideration of pot legalization this legislative session, and focus instead on budget, education and other health care priorities. And the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, after receiving input from Vermont chiefs of police, is advising the Legislature to oppose the legalization of marijuana at this time.

Despite the concerns of organizations such as SAM-VT and VLCT and law enforcement in Vermont, opponents of legalization have one huge community they may be unable to sway to their position.

"Business people around the state have a huge reaction when they learn that Colorado ski areas had a record number of visitors spending record amounts of money last year," said Laura Subin, director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana.

One things is certain: Marijuana is already here and its criminalization benefits no one except criminals and the prison-industrial complex. Barring the unlikely chance that users of pot will one day just forsake their drug of choice, the logical thing to do is to legalize, regulate and tax its sale.


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