Marijuana Advisory Commission cochairs Jake Perkinson (left) and Tom Little (standing)
A commission tasked with studying the prospect of marijuana legalization in Vermont recommended on Tuesday that Vermont lawmakers create a separate panel that would set and maintain standards for testing stoned drivers.
During a presentation at the Statehouse, members of the Marijuana Advisory Commission also recommended education and prevention programs for young people, along with data collection to measure and track the effects of cannabis legalization on traffic deaths, youth drug use, substance use disorders and criminal activity.
Gov. Phil Scott created the commission by executive order last August. It's tasked with investigating three primary areas: taxation and regulation, education and prevention, and highway safety.
A draft report was due Monday, but commission cochairs Tom Little and Jake Perkinson were making tweaks to the document Tuesday morning. A final report is due in December.
The presentation came nearly a week after the Vermont Senate passed a bill legalizing marijuana as of July 1. Scott received the legislation Tuesday morning and has said he will sign it into law.
The commission's recommendations largely focus on how the state should keep track of and regulate the impacts — positive or negative — of legalization. The report does not take a stand on the issue itself.
Health Commissioner Mark Levine emphasized that the state should implement public education and youth prevention programs at least a year before any legalization scheme takes effect.
Levine said that mistakes were made in other states, where education and prevention programs were launched months after pot became legal, “making them a little bit behind the eight-ball already with regards to getting the youth-directed efforts in place.”
On the issue of driving while stoned, the marijuana commission concluded that it’s too soon to recommend a specific standard or testing system. Instead, the panel proposed the creation of a new committee that would study the issue and make its own recommendations.
Levine said law enforcement and health officials would sit on the new panel to “determine whether and when [a] reasonable and scientifically reliable" marijuana impairment test could be put into place.
The commission hasn’t recommended any specific legislative approach to legalization in Vermont, Perkinson said. Instead, it's looking at how the state can best manage any problems posed by increased availability of the drug and its new legal status.
“To my mind, the most important thing about it is having a conversation about marijuana use in Vermont,” said Perkinson, pointing to a 2015 report that found 80,000 Vermonters already use the drug.
“Obviously it’s not something we can ignore, and whether or not you have legalization, I think it’s important to have the discussions about how to deal with marijuana use, particularly around youth use and driving,” said Perkinson, a former chair of the Vermont Democratic Party.
Colchester Police Chief Jennifer Morrison raised a concern Tuesday about how the new law would affect the use of drug-sniffing police canines. If the scent of marijuana is no longer considered legal grounds for a search, then all dogs trained to detect marijuana would have to be taken out of service, Morrison contended. The canines are not trained to communicate which specific drug they've detected, she said.
“That’s a real cost, and to an agency that has a canine, that’s an incredible cost,” Morrison said.
The commission is expected to continue studying legalization, and will specifically examine issues related to a regulated retail market before the next report is due in December.