Caution Urged as Vermont House Panel Weighs Pot Legalization | Off Message

Caution Urged as Vermont House Panel Weighs Pot Legalization

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LUKE EASTMAN
  • Luke Eastman
Anybody who hoped that a Vermont House committee hearing on marijuana legalization Tuesday would offer clarity on the issue was likely disappointed.

The Human Services Committee heard a steady stream of cautionary tales about legalizing marijuana that ranged from not now — to not ever. “I absolutely don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Margo Austin, a student assistant program counselor at Burlington High School.

Yet the panel’s chair, Rep. Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington) had already declared that a majority of the committee’s 11 members support the bill. She declined to reveal if, or when, a vote or further testimony will take place.

The bill is H.170, and would legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana but would not allow retail sale of the drug. The proposed legislation is similar to what’s in effect in Washington, D.C.

The committee is tasked — after House leaders last week feared that they lacked the votes to pass the bill in the full chamber — with studying marijuana prevention efforts in Vermont and also investigating if legalization would affect use among youths. If that information resolves the concerns of some uncertain members, the bill could go back to the floor for a vote, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) has said.

Those wavering were unlikely to come away with any reassurance based on Tuesday’s testimony. The four speakers invited to address the committee urged caution on legalization, or provided evidence that they said proved the state needs more drug prevention services before going ahead.

“We believe legalization of marijuana sends a message to our youth around marijuana that it’s a safe product, and we’re concerned about that,” said Bob Uerz, tobacco use prevention coordinator for the state Agency of Education.

The agency, he told Pugh’s committee, “urges a delay in legalization.”

The committee did not choose — at least not yet — to hear arguments about how youth use has remained relatively unchanged in Colorado since that state legalized marijuana in 2014. Pugh indicated that she wants the committee to hear more about how legalization in Colorado and Washington has impacted young people “the next time we take this up.”

She was circumspect about when that might be. The panel is not scheduled to discuss the bill again this week and Pugh declined to say whether it might next week.

Uerz said this was the first time the Agency of Education had been asked to weigh in on H.170, but the agency’s stance has been long been the same. Uerz called on lawmakers to delay legalization until the state had adequate funding for health educators and drug prevention programs
Rep. Ann Pugh - FILE
  • File
  • Rep. Ann Pugh
 in all Vermont schools.

Uerz said Gov. Phil Scott, who also wants to delay legalization, did not direct the agency to provide that recommendation. Nor, Uerz said, did the agency’s view change from what it had been under pro-legalization former governor Peter Shumlin.

Rep. Brian Keefe (R-Manchester) asked how much it would cost to provide the services Uerz mentioned. Uerz said he didn’t have numbers. “We can generate some estimates,” he said.

The state Health Department, represented coincidentally by Uerz’s wife, Lori Uerz, did not give specific recommendations about legalization. But Lori Uerz, who serves as director of prevention for the department’s Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs, said the state has yet to reach its 2020 goal for youth marijuana use.

The state’s 2015 youth risk behavior survey showed that marijuana use among youths decreased two percentage points from 2013, with 22 percent of youths indicating they had consumed the drug within the previous month. The goal for 2020 is 20 percent.

Of particular concern, Lori Uerz said, are the approximately 7 percent who reported using marijuana 20 or more of the last 30 days. The state’s goal, she said, is to implement a marketing campaign targeting those high users. “We have a lot of kids smoking a lot of pot,” she said.

The state has drug prevention programs in many schools, Uerz said, but only 20 of the state’s 50-plus school supervisory unions have programs to screen students for substance abuse and offer them services.

Legalization advocates are eager to share data from Colorado and Washington, where marijuana possession and sale are legal.

In Colorado, where marijuana became legal in 2014, 21 percent of youths there had consumed marijuana within the last month, according to its youth behavior survey. Those 2015 figures represent a 1 percent increase from 2013 but a 1 percent decrease from 2011. The survey deemed the trend “relatively unchanged.”

The survey showed, however, that fewer teens view regular marijuana use as risky. In 2013, 54 percent said they considered regular use risky, compared to 48 percent in 2015.


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