Editorial: Should Middlebury’s selectboard defy public’s will to legalize pot?

The most interesting question about the overwhelming support for legalizing marijuana among Middlebury residents is what the town’s governing officials will do with that the data. Will they vote against the majority’s wishes and side with their lobbying group’s bias, as some members have indicated, or will they vote the community’s will?
The question at hand is whether the town selectboard should support the Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ (VCLT) position on marijuana legalization during the upcoming 2018 legislative session. The VCLT’s current position states “marijuana should not be legalized for recreational purposes until all public safety concerns are adequately addressed.”
At first glance, it is a deceptively simple statement few would dare oppose. Who wouldn’t expect public safety concerns to be “adequately addressed” before moving forward with the initiative?
But a closer look reveals the Catch-22 inherent in that statement: How could public safety concerns ever be “adequately addressed” in the minds of some legislators or members of the law enforcement community who are adamantly opposed, and among public leaders who don’t want the responsibility of anything — not one instance — going wrong. Under that criteria, “adequately addressed” would never be attained.
More importantly, the VLCT’s position does not consider the negative implications of the status quo — that is, the current state of a black market for marijuana sales that feeds lower tier drug dealers, and which creates criminals of users of a substance that many consider no more harmful than alcohol.
The undeniable fact staring state and town officials in the face — as well as members of the law enforcement community — is that marijuana sales are already prolific, are easily available in every nook and corner of the state, and are being done so in an unregulated market that costs current law enforcement agencies huge dollars with no way to mitigate those expenses.
The proposed bill, S.22, to legalize marijuana — which passed in the House and Senate last session, but was vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott — had some compelling measures to beef up law enforcement of narcotics and public education about drug abuse. And in Scott’s veto, the governor conceded some of the merits of the bill and vowed to appoint a commission (as had been called for in S.22) to study ways to tax and regulate legal sales of the drug before the upcoming session began. The bill, as readers might recall, would have legalized up to an ounce of marijuana and home growing of up to two mature and four immature plants for adults age 21 and over.
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, argued at the time that legalization would allow state law enforcement officials to redirect resources to more serious issues, while also preparing the state for the impact soon to be felt by the legalization of marijuana sales in neighboring Massachusetts and Canada. The merits of S.22, and of any upcoming measures that will be considered by the next Legislature are, however, another matter that will be rolled out in the next session.
At issue today is the vote the Middlebury selectboard will cast on Sept. 26. To that end, it is important to recall that Middlebury residents at town meeting this past March requested the selectboard to solicit community input on this very issue before siding with the VLCT’s position as it had done unilaterally the prior year. That measure was approved precisely because voters were upset with the board for OKing a measure that did not represent what many residents believed to be the community’s perspective.
In that light, it is particularly egregious that board members might (as demonstrated by the board’s initial response to the survey as reported in today’s paper) cast a vote against what town residents so overwhelmingly want.
We use the word “overwhelmingly” because survey results were surprisingly lopsided (see story Page 1A). In that survey of 773 people, 71 percent favored legalizing marijuana, while 24.7 were opposed, and 68.9 percent specifically urged the selectboard not to lobby the governor nor Legislature against marijuana legislation.
It is also important to understand the role of the VLCT and its support of measures that are often not in the interest of the public good. On the contrary, their bias — as any good lobbying organization does — is to make things easier for their members, and specifically for town officials. In this case, that means following through on what law enforcement wants, regardless of what the Legislature or the general citizenry might consider the larger public good.
But the crux of this issue comes down to how the selectboard considers its role on this particular vote. It should be obvious that this vote is simply a representation of public support across the state — and in no way affects the legislation directly. It is, in essence, a straw poll that reflects the political winds.
If the selectboard were to cast its vote for the VLCT position, they would blatantly misrepresent the community’s perspective. And while this form of government is a representative democracy, in this case the entire community was asked to express its will as guidance for the selectboard to follow and a good number of citizens did just that. For board members to vote against that will because they think they know better disrespects the town’s collective wisdom.
We hope, therefore, the board will reject the VLCT’s over-simplified statement of opposition — and accurately reflect the will of the Middlebury voters.
— Angelo Lynn

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