Letters to the Editor: Public safety is a red herring in marijuana debate

At its September 26 meeting, the Middlebury Selectboard will vote on whether to endorse a Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) lobbying position related to marijuana legalization. Based on what I saw in the video of the September 12 Selectboard meeting, it does not appear that the Selectboard members have reviewed the legislation currently under consideration in the Vermont Statehouse. I hope that before they take that vote, they consider whether these bills address the town’s needs and concerns.
The VLCT policy position to date has been to oppose legalization, which means that the association responsible for representing Vermont municipalities has been lobbying against legalization for the last several years. This year, the VLCT’s proposed position has shifted slightly, stating that “Marijuana should only be legalized for recreational purposes after all public safety, public health, and local regulatory and budgetary concerns are adequately addressed.”
Angelo Lynn’s September 14 editorial underscores the impossibility of ever reaching agreement on such concerns being “adequately addressed.” To add ambiguity, the VLCT does not enumerate these concerns, and it is clear that the Middlebury Selectboard is not prepared to do so either. The phrase “public safety” was used repeatedly at the September 12 meeting, without definition, to the point that Selectboard member Susan Shashok was still asking for an itemized list of concerns, even as the discussion was coming to a close.
Upon further examination, the “public safety” objection is a red herring, a rhetorical diversion that implies good intentions, but as an argument fails to weaken the underlying logic of ending prohibition. A critical analysis of each of the concerns raised by the Selectboard reveals their flaws:
•  It is true that enforcing drugged driving (or operation of machinery) is difficult without a breathalyzer-like test available, but this should not be a reason to delay legalization. Some people are driving under the influence right now. This is a public safety threat now. Investments in a technology solution would be a very appropriate use of some of the revenue generated through taxing marijuana sales.
•  A concern about employees coming to work high assumes that people will change their current behavior. People who are inclined to come to work high are probably already doing it, and those who know better now are unlikely to start. Employers have the right to, and should, prohibit such behavior.
•  The belief that children will have greater access to cannabis is blind to current reality. Someone selling marijuana under prohibition makes money selling to anyone, regardless of age. Businesses operating under a regulated market will lose their permit selling to minors. Which model is more likely to provide kids with easy access to cannabis?
The Selectboard is clearly interested in ensuring that legalization does not negatively affect the Town of Middlebury. Luckily, the bills currently under consideration by the Vermont legislature make accommodations for municipal resources and authority.
S.22 passed in both chambers (and was vetoed by the Governor) during the 2017 legislative session. This law simply eliminates penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults over the age of 21 and allows growing plants for personal use. This is unlikely to have a direct impact on towns.
House bill H.490 is currently in the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs. This bill establishes a market and regulatory framework and the Middlebury Selectboard should pay close attention to it, as this bill will determine how Vermont implements legalization. Section 4505 specifically covers the authority granted to municipalities: towns have a right to determine the location of any retail outlets, including through zoning, or even vote on an outright ban of marijuana establishments. A 2.5 percent tax (on top of state taxes) provides a revenue source for municipalities.
If the Selectboard has other specific concerns related to potential impacts on the town, I hope they will make them clear to the public so that we can evaluate the need to address them in law. Legalization is a moral issue, and the longer Vermont drags its feet, the longer it will be before our state can get out in front of this issue. It would be wonderful if Middlebury and other Vermont municipalities could, through the VLCT, proactively work with policymakers to ensure that the needs of cities and towns are met, rather than obstructing the process with vague demands that are impossible to meet.
Alison Nihart

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