Gregory Dennis: Legalizing weed and weaning off coal

It’s that time of year again, when things start to get really interesting in Montpelier.
The Legislature that brought the nation groundbreaking laws on marriage equality, health insurance and GMO food labeling will decide another highly charged question in the next month:
Should Vermont be the first state to legalize marijuana by legislation? (Colorado and Washington legalized pot by statewide plebiscites.)
Also on the docket is a controversial bill to give towns some say in the siting of solar and wind energy projects.
In the halls under the golden dome, state officials are also still wrangling with whether to divest pension funds from coal companies and ExxonMobil. A separate effort is pushing for Vermont to join fraud investigations aimed at Exxon’s long cover-up of what it’s long known about the dangers of climate change.
In the reefer debate, the State Senate has already approved a bill, supported by Gov. Peter Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith, to legalize marijuana in some forms.
Addison County’s Sen. Claire Ayer supported the bill, but Sen. Chris Bray voted against it. Now that question is in the House of Representatives.
The state has decriminalized the personal use of marijuana, relegating violations to a civil matter. But without some form of legalization, people who grow, transport or sell marijuana will remain subject to prosecution.
Middlesex resident (and former general counsel to the Legislature) Al Boright put it this way: “Selling 50 pounds of pot may bring a penalty of 30 years, which is 10 years stiffer than the minimum levied for second degree murder. That’s crazy.”
Boright has compiled a long list of the other costs if legalization fails, including:
“Dollars funneled to the Mob/drug cartels; the truly dangerous drugs that may become available through underworld providers … the existing system’s failure to keep pot out of the hands of children … the incongruity in a ‘free’ society of police state-like helicopter surveillance … the squandering of law enforcement and judicial resources; the unrealized economic potential of pot as a thoughtfully regulated, locally grown, commercial product … the tax revenue forgone; and the simple fact that the pot prohibition has not worked.” (For his full commentary, see http://bit.ly/1VtyU1m.)
But a majority of our county’s House members oppose the bill. And if our relatively liberal House delegation can’t get behind legalization and strict regulation of marijuana use — plus funding for drug education and rehab — it’s one more sign that pot prohibition may continue to be the law of the land in Vermont.
At least so far, there hasn’t been the type of overwhelming pressure for legalization that led to GMO labeling. That’s a surprise in a state that ranks first or second in per capita marijuana consumption.
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As for divestment, the state has come closer than any other (except California) to reallocating some of its investments in fossil fuels.
Divestment supporters rightly note that unmitigated burning of fossil fuels is harming Vermont’s ski, maple and tourism industries. Given that, it’s perverse for state investments to support these industries.
Vermont has previously divested from apartheid South Africa, tobacco companies and war-torn Sudan.
The House approved a resolution calling on the Vermont Pension Investment Committee (VPIC) and state Treasurer Beth Pearce to divest from coal companies and Exxon.
In a compromise after Senate consideration, Pearce and VPIC are now conducting a deeper review of whether the state should take that step.
While Pearce has preached the gospel of environmentally wise investing, she’s also called divestment of any sort “a meaningless gesture.” So it’s an open question whether VPIC will decide to divest — or will once again fail to act in the face of the climate crisis.
• • • • •
There was an interesting twist last week in the debate over siting of solar and wind projects. Green energy has consistently polled very well with Vermonters. But a vocal minority has complained about the visual appearance of some projects — most notably on farmland along the Route 7 corridor through Addison County.
A bill shepherded through the Senate by Sen. Bray would give towns some influence over siting.
But what of the farmers themselves? It’s their land, and shouldn’t they get a voice?
To that question, a coalition of 40 Vermont farmers says, “Hell, yes!”
In a letter to state leaders signed by more than 40 farmers — including at least eight from Addison County — the farmers said their property rights and dedication to the environment deserve more consideration in the siting debate:
“We are concerned about policies being developed in Montpelier that could negatively impact our ability to affordably use, and host, solar and other renewable energy projects on our farms,” they wrote. “Vermont farmers have a proud tradition of turning the sun’s energy into productive use. Producing clean renewable energy is an increasingly vital part of Vermont’s modern agricultural economy.” The full letter and signers is at http://bit.ly/1SyDfLO.
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Two more quick notes: Lincoln resident Mari Cordes has jumped into the House race for Addison-4, which encompasses Monkton, Starksboro, Bristol and Lincoln. A skilled nurse and well-connected leader of a nurses union, Cordes will make that race an interesting one. It’s a district where Republican Fred Baser captured one of the two district seats in 2014, ousting Rep. Michael Fisher. Rep. David Sharpe, a Democrat, holds the other seat.
And returning briefly to the ExxonMobil fraud investigation, environmentalists are pushing Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell to join the AGs of New York, California and other states. They’re calling for a fraud investigation, contending Exxon has for decades lied and committed fraud regarding the risks of climate change to the oil company’s business model.
State attorneys general were instrumental in penalizing Big Tobacco for its decades of lying. So this one bears watching.
Editor’s note: Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.GregDennis.WordPress.com. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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