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Eric Davis: It makes sense to go slow on pot bill

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Posted on April 14, 2016 |
By Eric Davis



The Vermont House Judiciary Committee has amended the Senate-passed bill legalizing the sale of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use with a new proposal taking a very different approach.

Instead of legalization, the House Judiciary proposal would expand marijuana education programs, set a standard for psychoactive substances in the blood for drivers, and establish a commission to do more research on marijuana policy issues.

Whether the amended bill can pass both houses in the short time remaining in the legislative session is an open question. Even if it passes on the House floor, the Senate might not agree with the House changes. Some senators might try to reintroduce legalization through a conference committee, or by adding it as an amendment to an unrelated bill.

Vermont is not the only New England state where marijuana is currently on the legislative agenda. Legalization is being considered by committees in the Massachusetts Legislature. Also, proponents of legalization in the Bay State are attempting to gather enough signatures to put the proposal on the November ballot as a referendum question.

Unlike in Vermont, where Gov. Shumlin is a strong supporter of legalization, elected officials in Massachusetts want to go slow on legalization. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, also a Democrat, have all said that there are too many unsettled questions for Massachusetts to legalize marijuana at this time.

Many of these unsettled issues are among the reasons why the Vermont House Judiciary Committee took a go-slow approach to legalization.

First, evidence from Colorado shows that there has been an increase in marijuana use among people under 21, including high school students, after that state legalized, even though Colorado established a 21-year minimum purchasing age. Many experts on youth drug use believe that legalization should not be implemented until a comprehensive education program is in place for high school- and college-age youth pointing out the risks associated with marijuana use. The Judiciary Committee’s bill authorizes up to $350,000 for such a program.

Second, scientists do not yet agree on a protocol for assessing whether a motorist is too impaired by marijuana to drive safely, but recommend erring on the side of caution. The Judiciary Committee’s bill adopts a strict standard, in order that police can be trained to administer the test in the field.

Third, unless the status of marijuana is changed in federal law, federally insured banks and credit unions will not provide accounts for marijuana-related businesses, making it difficult for those businesses to conduct day-to-day activities. Also, states, not the federal Food and Drug Administration, will be responsible for assessing the quality and safety of marijuana products, a further administrative burden on state government. By not legalizing marijuana sales at this time, the Judiciary Committee avoids the complications associated with these inconsistencies between state and federal policies.

Eventual legalization of marijuana is likely, but there appears to be a consensus in the House that there are too many questions to legalize now. Meanwhile, a recent review of criminal justice statistics in Massachusetts showed that almost no one in that state is now charged with possession of marijuana and no other offense. When possession is charged, it is always ancillary to other offenses, such as DUI, vehicle theft or burglary. I expect that a review of the Vermont records would reach a similar conclusion.

Advocates of immediate marijuana legalization will be disappointed by the House Judiciary Committee’s approach. However, that approach seems to be the most prudent course of action at this time, until more states in the Northeast decide on their marijuana policies, and federal policies impacting the business and commercial aspects of the sale of marijuana are clarified.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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