Eric Davis: Food for thought for pot advocates

The California-based consulting firm RAND Corporation is preparing a report for Vermont state government on the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana. RAND itself does not take a position for or against legalization.
Beau Kilmer, the lead consultant on the study, is a nationally known expert on marijuana policy and the co-author of the 2012 book “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.” I recommend this book, a comprehensive and balanced treatment of the subject, to citizens and office-holders considering the legalization of marijuana in Vermont.
In 2012, the voters of Washington state and Colorado approved referendums legalizing marijuana. Legal marijuana sales began earlier this year in both states, which have broadly similar policies. Persons over 21 may purchase up to one ounce of marijuana for personal recreational use. Sales are made only in retail stores licensed by the state. Local governments may forbid marijuana licenses from being granted within their boundaries. Marijuana, which is taxed in both states, retails for between $12 and $25 per gram, depending on its potency.
Washington and Colorado allow marijuana to be consumed only in homes and on private property. Pot smoking in public is not permitted. Providing marijuana to minors is a criminal offense. Standards have been established for determining the level of marijuana-impaired driving, and that offense is treated much like DUI.
Voters in additional states, such as California, may approve marijuana legalization through ballot referendums in upcoming elections. Just as Vermont was the first state in the nation to enact marriage equality through legislative action, Vermont could be the first state where the legislature passes a marijuana legalization bill.
Kilmer’s book claims that Vermont, along with Alaska, has the highest percentage of marijuana use of any state. Approximately 11 percent of Vermonters are estimated to use marijuana occasionally or regularly. Polls in Vermont have also shown support for marijuana legalization, and the issue is likely to be on the agenda of the 2015-16 legislative session.
The Legislature might want to wait until 2016 before enacting any marijuana legislation. By 2016, there will be two years of experience with legal marijuana sales in Colorado and Washington, and that experience could inform Vermont’s policy choices. More importantly, next year’s Legislature has to deal with critical issues related to health care reform, education finance and governance, and state budget and tax policy, all of which are higher priorities than legalizing marijuana.
If the Vermont Legislature does decide to move toward legalization of marijuana in the next year or two, one issue worth considering is whether to enact a measure like Washington’s or Colorado’s, providing for retail sales in licensed establishments, right away, or whether to take an intermediate step before full commercialization.
This intermediate step, discussed in the “Marijuana Legalization” book, would allow marijuana to be legally cultivated for personal use, and sales in small consumer-owned cooperatives, without having retail stores of the type opening up in Washington and Colorado. Such an approach, emphasizing locally grown product, could be seen as consistent with Vermont values. After five years or so of this small-scale legalization, the Legislature could revisit the subject and decide whether to move to complete commercialization.
Another issue for the Legislature would be the appropriate level of taxation. Kilmer and his colleagues make clear that marijuana legalization should not be seen as a source of revenue for the state government’s general fund. Rather, the taxes should be set at a level high enough to raise money to cover the costs of the marijuana regulation program, but not so high that users will continue to obtain marijuana from unregulated black market sources.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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