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Middlebury officials weigh in on marijuana; selectboard backs modified VLCT position

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a slightly modified version of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ (VLCT) current position on legalizing marijuana, stating that cannabis should be OK’d for recreational use only after related “public safety, public health and local regulatory and budgetary concerns are adequately addressed.”
The board’s vote comes in wake of a recent townwide survey in which 71 percent of the 773 respondents said they believed Vermont should legalize recreational marijuana.
But individual board members said the survey shouldn’t become their only compass in staking out a position on the marijuana issue, citing their collective responsibility of ensuring public safety when it comes to a drug that can — just like alcohol — impair the judgment and reaction time of drivers.
“I feel an obligation to make sure public safety is preserved in any legislation that’s enacted,” selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter told his colleagues. Carpenter and fellow Selectman Nick Artim were both out of town but participated in the meeting via speaker-phone.
The VLCT has been looking for feedback on how it should lobby the Legislature during the 2018 session on major issues, including bill(s) that would legalize possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana. The VLCT has altered its position on pot during recent weeks. Earlier this month, the organization was proposing to advise lawmakers that “marijuana should not be legalized for recreational purposes until all public safety concerns are adequately addressed.”
But it amended that proposed stance to the version the Middlebury selectboard considered on Tuesday evening: “Marijuana should only be legalized for recreational purposes after all public safety, public health, and local regulatory and budgetary concerns are adequately addressed.”
“The VLCT has moved to a position of conditional acceptance,” said Selectman Victor Nuovo, adding the town survey preceded the VLCT’s modified stance on marijuana.
“I am pleased the VLCT changed its stance from where it was, to where it is now,” Selectwoman Susan Shashok said. “It is much closer to where I want it to be.”
Middlebury officials — following an hour of debate — decided to endorse the VLCT’s proposed lobbying position, minus one word: “All.” Board members argued that insisting “all” public safety, health, regulatory and budgetary concerns be addressed prior to legalization would be too rigid a stance that could lend itself to a more extreme lobbying strategy than they could support.
While the 773 responses were the most Middlebury has ever received for an on-line survey, Selectwoman Heather Seeley said the numbers should be put into context with the community’s larger population. She noted 599 of the 773 respondents were Middlebury residents. That 599 is fewer than 10 percent of the town’s total population (including Middlebury College students), according to Seeley. So the 425 Middlebury residents who said they favored marijuana legalization represented around 5 percent of the town’s total population, according to Seeley.
“It’s not a majority (of the town),” Seeley said of the survey results. “It’s a majority of those responding to the survey… I think that should weigh a little in considering the results.”
Nuovo said board members should ask themselves if the use of cannabis is a “public good.”
He believes the answer is ‘no ” — except for medical purposes.
“It takes the mind away from reality,” Nuovo said of marijuana.
Still, Nuovo believes it will only be a matter of time before recreational marijuana is made legal, and he said local, state and federal officials should continue to look at ways of regulating its availability.
Shashok said it would be unwise for the selectboard to take a leap of faith in advocating for the legalization of marijuana with the expectation the associated details would work themselves out.
“We need to make sure the details get worked out, and we are responsible for those details.”
Artim said his business travels take him into states in which marijuana is legal. He said he therefore knows many people who use cannabis, and he has seen how it is marketed and displayed.
“Personally, I don’t object to an adult who chooses to consume marijuana for personal reasons, and I know people across the country who do use it for a variety of reasons,” Artim said.
But he added he’s concerned that some people who use it might “cross the threshold of civil responsibility,” thereby affecting other people’s safety.
“The potential hazards in Middlebury can increase, and that’s why as a selectboard we have to be concerned,” Artim said. “We, as a selectboard, don’t have the luxury of viewing this issue only from a favorable position of the responsible consumer…
“Legalization is coming, and for some it can’t come soon enough,” Artim added. “But as an elected official, along with my fellow board members, I have to do what I can for the safety of Middlebury residents.”
A handful of local residents — including former Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury — listened to the selectboard’s comments, and offered some of their own.
Resident Jack Watts told selectboard members they should be asking themselves if legalization of marijuana would make Middlebury unsafe, rather than beginning with the premise of whether such an action would keep the town safe.
Resident Winslow Colwell said it was time Vermont joined states like Washington and Colorado that have already legalized recreational cannabis. He said there has been no evidence of a boost in traffic-related deaths or emergency room visits in states that have legalized.
He disputed Seeley’s reservations about the validity of the recent Middlebury marijuana survey and pointed to the results of recent national polls on the subject. For example, a CBS News poll conducted this past August indicated 61 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legal.
“We live in a state that is more progressive and we live in a town which is that much more progressive within our state,” Colwell said. “For you to infer that less than 10 percent approved of legalization is… using anecdote and misdirection to try to take the discussion away from a rational discussion.”
Resident Joanna Colwell is a member of a Middlebury group called “Showing Up for Racial Justice,” which provides education on the negative impacts of white supremacy on society.
“I believe from the bottom of my heart that this is a social good,” she said of legalization, a means by which the town could derive some tax revenues for — among other things — fixing and expanding the Ilsley Library.
Quoting Vermont Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, she said “Cannabis reform would be the biggest economic development step we will have taken in the past 10 or 20 years.”
Colwell called the War on Drugs “an unmitigated disaster,” and noted the extent to which U.S. prisons are overcrowded with inmates, many of them of color serving time for drug offenses.
She also referred to recent studies — including one published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2014  — suggesting overdose deaths from opioids have declined in states that have legalized cannabis.
“I urge you not to use your office for any kind of stalling on this vital issue,” Colwell said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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