Health Commissioner Mark Levine, right, speaking with the Senate Judiciary Committee
Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine wants lawmakers to budget millions of dollars for cannabis education and prevention programs before the state starts collecting revenue from legal retail pot stores.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday morning, Levine said that data show an alarming increase in youth marijuana use in recent years and urged lawmakers to fund programs that would nip the problem in the bud.
The commissioner told lawmakers there is a “growing consensus” among scientists that weed is harmful to developing brains. He said youth use of the drug has been shown to cause “both acute and chronic forms of psychosis.”
“The relationship is quite firm now, and the rates are alarming,” he said.
Levine issued his warning as the committee considers S.54, a bill that would establish a state regulatory authority to oversee the cultivation, processing and retail sale of cannabis to adults. Under a timeline laid out in the measure, the first retail licenses would be issued by April 1, 2021.
Fifteen of the Senate's 30 members are listed as sponsors of the bill.
According to Levine, the legislation poses a threat to public health unless key programs are up and running before the first buds are legally sold.
“It would be not only unacceptable but unconscionable to have legislation that would create this kind of potential marketplace that would not at least make an effort explicitly to have a revenue stream going towards education and prevention and research, and that would not … explicitly protect public health and public safety,” Levine said.
According to a 2017 literature review by the Department of Health, there were 30 studies published from August 2015 to January 2017 about the link between cannabis and psychosis. The review said that 16 of them “are research studies that directly support the link between early marijuana use and the development of psychosis.”
Levine, citing data from a survey administered by his department, said an increasing number of Vermont kids are at risk.
He said the biennial surveys of Vermont students "have actually shown an alarming increase in current [marijuana] use amongst those youth."
According to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, based on data from 2017, 24 percent of Vermont high school students reported using marijuana in the “past 30 days.”
Vermont Department of Health
A page of the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey report
That was an increase over 2015, when 22 percent of high school students reported using weed in the previous 30 days. But those numbers have been fairly steady for most of the past decade. In fact, 2017’s rate of 24 percent matches the rate of pot use a decade prior, in 2007.
In response to follow-up questions about Levine's reference to an "alarming increase," Health Department spokesperson Ben Truman defended the commissioner's characterization of the trend.
The 2 percent change in kids reporting marijuana use, Truman wrote in an email, "is a statistically significant increase.
"Overall, even though the long-term trend has been relatively stable ... from a public health perspective it is a continuing concern," he wrote. "Taken together with other indicators ... it is appropriate to use the term 'alarming' when considering drug use among school age children."
In his testimony Wednesday, Levine said the issue exists even without a retail cannabis market.
“We already have the problem,” Levine said of youth use. “It’s not like taxing and regulating this makes the problem go away.”
When Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) asked Levine how much his department would need in order to adequately prepare for retail pot sales, the health commissioner had a ready answer: $6 million to $8 million.
Levine said the bulk of that funding would go to six “Regional Prevention Networks” around the state, which would be responsible for education and prevention programs to include: health policy advisors for local communities, after-school programming, and educational materials informing kids about the risks related to pot use. It would also pay for a statewide messaging campaign targeting Vermont youth.
The request poses a problem for lawmakers, who have been planning to fund such programs using taxes and fees generated by the retail pot market.
“And where would we … we’re not selling any product … we don’t have…,” Sears trailed off, unsure where the money would come from.
“Right,” Levine said.
Levine didn’t have any proposals for how to raise the money, and Sears suggested the funding question would be better addressed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Rebecca Kelley, a spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, wrote in an emailed statement that the governor believes any bill to tax and regulate pot should include funding for related programs.
"There are opportunities to generate revenue in advance, including licensing and registration fees," she wrote. "The Governor has been clear about the need to get this right, so we hope this is part of the legislative discussion as they focus on creating a regulatory market."
The Senate bill was criticized in Wednesday's committee hearing by supporters and opponents of a regulated pot market, not for what it proposes but for what it lacks.
Levine urged senators to dedicate funding to education and prevention. Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson told the committee that they’ll do a “disservice to all Vermonters” if they don’t add policies to the bill that would help police investigate drivers suspected of being high.
Dave Silberman, a Middlebury attorney and vocal cannabis reform advocate, said the legislation should include free automatic expungements for those with prior pot convictions.
Laura Subin, the director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, said people with prior weed convictions should get priority when applying for licenses in the regulated market because they’ve been disproportionately harmed by the prohibition.
Sears said those items were intentionally left off the legislation, but not necessarily because he disagrees with the proposals. Lawmakers may consider those issues in separate bills, he said, but he opted to keep S.54 as simple as possible by restricting it to the details of a tax-and-regulate market.