Editorial: Pot bill’s passage is just the beginning of the discussion

With surprising speed, Vermont’s House (last week) and the Senate (on Wednesday) passed H.511, a bill that legalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Gov. Phil Scott has said he will sign the bill into law — and it’s only the second week of the legislative session.
The move makes Vermont the ninth state in the nation to legalize marijuana possession for adults and is the first to do so through its legislature (all others have done it by ballot initiative.) Vermont’s bill is relatively modest in its scope. It allows a Vermont residence, or household unit, to legally have one ounce or less of pot and possess up to two mature marijuana plants and four immature plants at any time. The law would become effective July 1, 2018.
But that’s not the end of the discussion.
Several legislators, including Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman call the “personal possession plan” the first step. The goal, Zuckerman and others say, is a “full fledged tax-and-regulate system,” similar to what Colorado and Washington state have adopted. In short, a storefront retail system that allows for the recreational sale and use of marijuana.
Without the full-fledged system, proponents argue, the state does not reap any of the tax benefits, including funds that could be used to provide public education about responsible use of the drug.
“Until we can take some of that revenue from a tax-and-regulated marijuana market and move that revenue into the kinds of youth prevention and public health outreach that needs to be done to educate people about safe marijuana use, we’re gonna continue to fall further behind,” said Bradford Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas.
Interestingly, the bill moved quickly and without a lot of controversy, most likely because of polls show a solid majority support for legalization. A year ago in March, polls showed 57 percent of Vermont voters supported allowing adults 21 and older to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana, while 39 percent were opposed. A Gallup poll this past October showed that 64 percent of Americans support legalization.
Furthermore, legislatures in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Rhode Island are expected to seriously consider making marijuana legal for adults this year. It’s legal in Quebec. Massachusetts already has lenient laws in place. The New Hampshire House approved a measure similar to Vermont’s this week. The fix is in.
But is the full monty in the state’s best interest?
The Vermont Medical Society, for one, argues it is not. We know marijuana’s use can be addictive, and that it can serve as a gateway drug for a percentage of the population. We can imagine there will be issues with driver impairment, mental and physical health, and that it might affect worker or student productivity. Writ large, there is a good argument to be made that legalization makes the state less healthy — and with health care being such a big cost for society, there is reason to object, or at least proceed with caution.
The counter is that the black market in marijuana sales creates a more viable drug trade in the state, creating a base from which to spread; that the drug itself is less addictive or harmful than alcohol; and that prosecution is a waste of taxpayer resources. The idea here is to legalize it, regulate it, tax it and use the proceeds to counter its ill effects — just as we do for tobacco and alcohol — and perhaps put what’s left over to good use.
There is no perfect answer.
What we know, however, is that when you make something that is currently illegal, legal, its use will grow. And particularly if Vermont proceeds with a tax-and-regulate system, we can assume its use will grow exponentially. Like Colorado, it could be incorporated in foods. California has already dreamed up Uber-like services delivering to your home freshly concocted pot smoothies. With capitalism let loose to define the market, one can imagine the possibilities — tampered, of course, by state and federal regulation.
The next question for Vermont, then, is how quickly it moves to open (and regulate) its market. Vermont would be wise to learn from other states and resolve some of the worst influences before it leaps too far ahead.
Angelo Lynn

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