Shumlin Joins Pro-Pot Legalization "Strategy" Session; Reporters Excluded | Off Message

Shumlin Joins Pro-Pot Legalization "Strategy" Session; Reporters Excluded

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* Updated below with new comments from Gov. Shumlin *

Gov. Peter Shumlin starred in a fundraising conference call held by the Marijuana Policy Project Thursday afternoon. In an invitation obtained by Seven Days last month, the call was billed as a "strategy" session to discuss how to legalize marijuana nationwide.

The "exclusive conference call," as MPP executive director Rob Kampia put it in the invitation, was open only to the pro-legalization advocacy group's major donors. Participants had to pledge to contribute $1000 to $10,000 to the group itself — or to pro-pot politicians.

Seven Days requested permission from MPP and the Shumlin administration to listen to the call, but was denied by the former and ignored by the latter.

"The idea was that it would be an opportunity for donors to hear from MPP staffers and from Gov. Shumlin, so we did not envision any media being on the call," MPP legislative analyst Matt Simon said Wednesday. "I don't think we have anything in particular to hide. At the same time, I'm not authorized to let you join us."

Simon added, "We figure members of the media already have plenty of opportunities to ask questions. Our donors do not."

That may be true, but the stated topic of Thursday's call diverged significantly from Shumlin's official position on the matter. Shumlin has said in recent weeks that while he personally favors eventually legalizing marijuana in Vermont, he opposes doing so now. Shumlin says the state should watch and wait to see how Colorado and Washington, both of which legalized marijuana last year, fare in the process.

But here's how Kampia pitched the conference call:

Would you like to join me for a phone call with Vermont Gov. Pete Shumlin, two other MPP staffers, and approximately 30 major MPP donors to discuss our strategy for legalizing marijuana nationwide over the next four years?

Earlier this month, MPP announced its desire to legalize pot in Vermont and nine other states by 2017.

Asked Wednesday whether Seven Days could join the call, Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen said she would look into the matter. Subsequently, Allen declined to return several phone calls and emails before the phone call was scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m. Thursday.

* Updated below at 7:25 p.m. *

At a Montpelier press conference later Thursday afternoon, Shumlin addressed the MPP conference call and recounted his remarks to the group’s donors. He said he joined the call for just 12 minutes.

“I explained to them that when I came on as governor two and a half years ago I felt that our drug policies were misguided, that we were spending resources prosecuting small amounts of marijuana, that we were losing the battle against heroin and other opiates,” he said during the press conference, which was held in a conference room on the fifth floor of the Pavilion State Office Building. “I continue to believe that.”

Since he was elected, Shumlin said he told MPP, he’s worked to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and permit the use of medical marijuana.

Remarkably, Shumlin compared the effort to legalize marijuana to earlier civil rights struggles in Vermont, like establishing civil unions and legalizing same-sex marriage.

“The conversation about legalization,” Shumlin said he told the donors, is “very reminiscent, in my view, of Vermont’s history with civil unions and then with marriage equality — except that it was being pioneered in other states, which is fine by me: Washington and Colorado.”

When Vermont established civil unions in 2000, Shumlin said, “most people thought that allowing marriage equality of any kind was unthinkable. It was a pretty tough conversation here in Vermont.”

He continued: “Just 12 years later, the conversation moved very quickly, because of the grassroots organizing, because families told logical stories about why they should be allowed to marry even when they were same-sex couples and so forth. 

In the coming decade, Shumlin said he told MPP, “We [are] going to see the same kind of evolution in marijuana policy that this country’s seen in marriage equality… I sort of told them about our Vermont story.”

“That’s quite a comparison,” Seven Days noted. “Do you think that Vermonters and Americans have the fundamental right to smoke pot — the way you probably would have argued about civil unions and gay marriage?”

“That is not what I said,” the governor responded to guffaws from those attending the press conference. “It might surprise you to hear. 

As for whether Shumlin agreed with the premise of the call — that marijuana should be legal in all 50 states — he said, “I just want to be clear: that goal never came up on the call. We didn’t discuss it.”

He also reiterated that reforming Vermont’s pot laws simply is not a priority.

“Let me be clear: I have no interest in legalizing marijuana in Vermont in the next legislative session. None whatsoever. I do not believe Vermont is ready — or that it would pass,” he said. “What I do believe is that in the next decade we’re going to see an evolution on this subject, that we are blessed by the fact that Colorado and Washington State can be our guinea pigs on this one.”

Shumlin said he wished those states “all the luck in the world” and invited them “to be my guests in being pioneers for the rest of the country.

“I look forward to being in the back seat,” he concluded.

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