Eric L. Davis: Time to regulate and tax marijuana

Vermont’s legislators will devote some time to marijuana policy as the 2017 session winds down, but it is unlikely that they will take any definitive action this year. Some House members appear to support a simple decriminalization bill that would allow individuals to possess a very small amount of marijuana and cultivate a few plants at home for their personal use. Senators continue to favor the approach they voted for last year: a comprehensive scheme to legalize, regulate and tax the distribution and sale of marijuana in Vermont.
My thinking on marijuana policy has evolved over the past year. Readers of this column may recall that I have been skeptical about legalization, raising questions about the health effects of marijuana on young people, the impact of marijuana-impaired drivers on other motorists, and the ability of marijuana-related businesses to use federally regulated banks. While these concerns are not unimportant, there are other considerations as well.
We now have the benefit of several years’ experience in Colorado and Washington, the first states to legalize marijuana, as well as the decisions of voters in Massachusetts, Maine, California and other states to legalize, regulate and tax cannabis. It is now time for Vermont to legalize, regulate and tax as well. The Legislature should pass such a bill before the end of the biennium next spring.
Vermont’s prohibition policy on marijuana is not working. The laws on the books are enforced capriciously regarding most users of small amounts, and leave those few who are caught with unnecessary criminal records. Meanwhile, law enforcement resources are diverted from other more important priorities, such as crimes related to opioid addiction, domestic abuse and domestic violence. On the highways, a recent study indicates that Vermont has among the highest rate of drivers distracted by electronic devices, arguably a more serious safety hazard than marijuana-impaired drivers.
More importantly, Vermont’s current policy allows the black market in marijuana — estimated to be as much as $200 million a year — to flourish. The experience of Colorado and Washington demonstrates that well-designed regulatory systems, with tax rates set at appropriate levels, can result in a controlled distribution system and additional revenue for the state (quite likely more than the costs associated with regulation), while delivering a substantial blow to the black market.
Legislative committees, with the aid of the experience from other states, should be able to design a legalization, regulation and tax system that meets the needs of Vermont and is appropriate to the state’s size and rural character. A relatively small number of sales points should be approved to start, with the program able to be expanded after it has been in place for a few years.
If marijuana is to be legalized, regulated and taxed, two pieces of related legislation that have been considered at the Statehouse in the current session should be enacted at the same time. First, the age of legal purchase for tobacco products should be raised to 21, so that tobacco, alcohol and marijuana sales are all subject to the same minimum age. California has already raised the smoking age to 21, and other states are seriously considering doing the same.
Second, Gov. Scott’s proposal to merge the Department of Liquor Control with the State Lottery should be approved, with marijuana regulation added to the responsibilities of the new department. Some of the vendors that sell alcohol and lottery products might also become marijuana sales points, and staff could be cross-trained to administer and enforce marijuana laws as well as those related to alcoholic beverages.
The current prohibition regime is approaching the end of its useful life, if it has not already passed that milestone. Vermont needs a new approach to marijuana policy sooner rather than later.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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