Editorial: It’s critical to do due diligence on legalizing pot

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell made news recently by speculating that the Green Mountain State would legalize marijuana in the upcoming legislative session. He made the comment a week ago at an annual office retreat during which he briefs his staff on legal and policy issues they might face in the coming year.
Sorrell said he based his speculation on circumstantial evidence, not from any specific insider information. He noted that House Speaker Shap Smith has said he favors legalization, clearing the path for proposed legislation to move through the House, a change from past sessions. There are enough votes in the Senate to pass such a bill, he says, and Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he would sign a bill if it reaches his desk. In short, Sorrell’s speculation has merit.
Four other states have legalized marijuana sales — Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado — so there is also enough evidence to estimate reasonably accurate revenues and potential costs to the state. And because those states have developed regulatory systems to keep track of marijuana sales, Vermont doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel and can benefit from their experience. A regulatory framework in Vermont could be in place by 2017, Sorrell said, but it is not likely to be in place for 2016.
The comment made news because the legalization of marijuana could be one of the defining issues in the upcoming campaign. Smith and Democratic candidate Matt Dunne are lining up on the side of legalization, while newly announced candidate Democrat Sue Minter hasn’t yet broadcast her position. Republican Bruce Lisman has come out against it, and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is undeclared. Sorrell, who may or may not choose to run for re-election, could face Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, a Democrat, who has announced his intentions to run for the office and has opposed legalization in past comments.
It’s also a highly subjective topic, ruled as much by personal belief as public policy.
Anecdotally, the argument at the water cooler or street corner is that smoking marijuana is no more harmful (less, some would argue) than consuming alcohol. Then, there’s the argument that the complete decriminalization of marijuana would relieve the burden on the judicial system, while controlling its sale. Finally, by taxing marijuana sales, the state could reap some much-needed revenue.
The argument against legalizing marijuana sales is two pronged: first, many in law enforcement see it as a gateway drug to more serious addictions caused by opiates, pharmaceuticals and other drugs; second, recreational drug use flies in the face of good public health.
One can argue the pros and cons of any of these points, but the most obvious reason to oppose its legalization is that it does not advance society’s public health. It may not be worse than alcohol, it may not be as bad as cigarettes, but that still doesn’t mean it’s good for you. In fact, some will argue that over-indulging in marijuana (particularly for youthful users) can be harmful to brain development.
When put against the state’s push to improve our overall health — campaigns against obesity, for more exercise, healthy eating of local foods, health care systems based on preventative health care practices rather than fee for service — in fact, nearly everything we try to implement around health care revolves around making healthy choices for our bodies. Yet, here we are talking about taking an action that is fundamentally detrimental to our health. Smoking marijuana in moderation isn’t the worst thing in the world, you might argue, but it would take a mighty big stretch to argue that it is improving your health.
The best argument for legalization is that it doesn’t punish people for consuming a drug that is similar to cigarettes and alcohol. And if you decriminalize it, then you have to make it available for sale — either on the open market, on in a regulated venue.
But before Vermont jumps on that marijuana bandwagon, let’s do the research well. Just how much tax revenue will it generate, and how does that stack up against the cost to society? In those states and other countries that have legalized marijuana, what is the evidence that marijuana is or is not a gateway drug, which could lead to higher law enforcement and drug rehabilitation costs? Is there a cost benefit to our court system to decriminalize its sale?
The evidence is out there. Let’s be sure to pursue our due diligence and not make a decision just because “everyone else will be doing it soon enough” and we’ll lose out on a few dollars by not jumping in early. The impact on public health is surely worth such careful consideration.
Angelo S. Lynn

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