Legal Pot in Vermont? Not Yet, Say Some Top Policy Makers | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Legal Pot in Vermont? Not Yet, Say Some Top Policy Makers

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Mason Tvert had never been to Vermont before last week, but he's known for a while that the Green Mountain State would be next on his itinerary. The man credited with making Colorado the first state to legalize marijuana hopes to make Vermont the first to do so legislatively — not by public referendum.

Standing onstage last Thursday night at Club Metronome in downtown Burlington, the cherubic Tvert took the mic like an adept preacher, calling Vermonters to the cause. "It's illegal because people think it's dangerous. We really need to be changing the way people think about this," Tvert said.

Tvert fired up his audience of some 50 kindred spirits with the marijuana-is-safer-than alcohol argument that won him Colorado. As many in the audience sipped legal pints of beer, he asked them to help spread the message to their neighbors — and their representatives in Montpelier.

"What we really need, and what's going to be the biggest victory, is to get it passed by a legislature. That's when you know you've gotten over the hump," Tvert said. "I really do think Vermont is the place where we're going to see this happen really soon."

In the next few weeks, Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden) plans to unveil a bill that would legalize marijuana for recreational use and allow for its legal cultivation and sale. Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) aims to introduce the same bill in the House.

Fighting alongside them will be the Marijuana Policy Project, for whom Tvert is spokesman, and an eclectic group of organizations and prominent citizens who make up the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana. Among them: former governor Madeleine Kunin, environmentalist Bill McKibben, the American Civil Liberties Union, and both the Progressive and Libertarian parties.

At Club Metronome last Thursday, Jessica May of Burlington said she sees marijuana as a natural medicine that can prevent people from using far more dangerous pharmaceutical drugs. "I would love to spread the word," she said.

But is Vermont ready to become the next state — and the first on the East Coast — to legalize pot? At least one high-profile supporter, Gov. Peter Shumlin, said he'd like to see it happen — but not yet.

He said the first state to ban slavery, legalize gay marriage through legislative action and mandate labeling of genetically modified foods might be wise to take its time.

"I think this is the next logical step going forward, but I don't think Vermont should do this until we understand what works and what doesn't. For me, there are still unanswered questions," Shumlin said at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event on Monday. "I don't know exactly what the right time frame is. I'm not going to speculate on a date."

Data — and a Lack Thereof

Last Friday, the nonprofit RAND Corporation released a 218-page report detailing what legalization might mean for Vermont. Commissioned by the legislature and governor last May, the report drew no conclusions but provided plenty of fodder.

It explores a wide range of topics: how legalization works in Colorado and Washington, how many Vermonters use marijuana (60,000 to 100,000), how much money the state could make if it were legalized and taxed ($20 million to $75 million a year), and how it could be sold.

Legalization supporters hope the report will be a launching pad for debate. "I think those numbers hurt their cause," Zuckerman said of pot opponents. He said that the number of people using black-market marijuana in Vermont — roughly 10 to 16 percent of residents — makes clear that prohibition isn't working.

RAND's research also reveals the deep complications of legalizing locally a substance the federal government and surrounding states would still consider illegal. "I'm hoping most people are thinking this is a very complex issue," said Debby Haskins, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana-Vermont, a chapter of the anti-legalization group started by former congressman Patrick Kennedy.

Many of the report's estimates are expressed in wide ranges because it's hard to nail down how many people use an illegal substance — or how many would if it were legal. Rand based its estimates on federal surveys.

Vermonters spend an estimated $125 million to $225 million a year on marijuana, the study found. "Because it's a black market, it's very hard to have a precise figure here," Beau Kilmer, project leader for RAND, warned last week as he presented highlights of the report at the Statehouse.

Drawing from Colorado's year of experience in retail sales and six months in Washington, much of the data is still evolving, according to Kilmer. "It's going to be a while before you have the kind of high-quality reports you need," he said.

Various reports suggest that Colorado's legalization is going relatively well despite some hiccups. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who initially opposed legalization, appears to be changing his tune. This month on "60 Minutes," he said, "I probably would've reversed it. Now, I'm not so sure I'd do that."

But it's not all smooth sailing in Colorado. Marijuana edibles have caused some problems — some customers apparently didn't realize that a full cookie contains more than a single dose. And in December, Colorado was sued by Nebraska and Oklahoma, whose attorneys general claim that marijuana is seeping across their borders.

On the money side, tax revenues from marijuana sales have been somewhat unpredictable — so far. In August, the Denver Post reported that Colorado's marijuana revenues were coming more than 60 percent below predictions. Initial estimates that the state would see $33 million in the first half of the year turned into just over $12 million, according to the Post.

When Alaska voters went to the polls in November to legalize marijuana there, state officials declined to offer an estimate on tax revenues, the Alaska Dispatch News reported.

Vermont has 12 percent the population of Colorado, but RAND projected the state could bring in up to $75 million a year from taxing marijuana. That's based on a variety of factors, including the number of current users; whether Vermont allows sales to out-of-staters; the size of the potential market, given Vermont's proximity to New York, Boston and Montréal; and how many marijuana stores the state permits. Much also depends on whether Vermont can eliminate the black market and whether neighboring states legalize it, too.

Vermont lawmakers are already questioning the revenue projections. "I find it hard to believe tax revenues would match what RAND says," said Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor), a former police officer who is wary of legalization.

The report notes that Vermont could consider various limitations on legalization. For example, Colorado allows home cultivation, while Washington does not. Colorado allows an unlimited number of retail stores — as of July there were 700. Washington caps it at 334, which is also the total number of liquor stores the state operated before it privatized them in 2013.

"If I were in your chair, I would seriously be thinking about six licenses," Jonathan Caulkins, a RAND author, told the House Ways and Means Committee last week.

Zuckerman said he doubts the bill he's writing would allow for a store on every corner. "I don't think that'll be what will pass," he told the gathering at Club Metronome last week.

The Push and the Pushback

Zuckerman, a 43-year-old, ponytailed organic farmer, has been championing marijuana reform since he was elected to the legislature nearly two decades ago. He told the Club Metronome gathering that he occasionally used the drug as a University of Vermont student, and his standing as a successful business owner and politician shows it had no deleterious effect.

"It's just never made sense to me," he said of marijuana being illegal. "Right now, regulated alcohol is harder to get for high school teenagers than unregulated marijuana." Zuckerman and others have succeeded in softening Vermont's marijuana laws in recent years, legalizing medical marijuana in 2004, permitting medical marijuana dispensaries in 2011 and decriminalizing possession of an ounce or less in 2013.

Each time, there was opposition from those who feared looser laws would increase drug use among children, increase drug addiction and generate crime. Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, is a veteran of those earlier battles. This year, he's back in Vermont doing grassroots organizing with support from the Necrason Group, a Montpelier lobbying firm.

Efforts to legalize pot will again meet opposition, and this time it will be stronger than in the past, predicted Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, president of the Vermont Police Chiefs Association. Merkel opposed marijuana dispensaries and decriminalization, and while he ultimately lost those fights, he said law enforcement helped make the current laws more palatable.

Merkel conceded that dispensaries and decriminalization have not led to detrimental consequences. He described decriminalization as "workable," but added, "I wouldn't say it works well." Legalization poses bigger challenges for public safety and drug addiction, he argued. "At a time when the state is in a dogfight because of drug abuse, it seems ludicrous to legalize another substance," he said. He also noted that there are no roadside tests for drugged driving.

Burlington Boys & Girls Club executive director Mary Alice McKenzie joined Merkel to form the Vermont chapter of SAM in 2013. McKenzie said she worries about marijuana's impact on children. "The thought of allowing a market to be created around the product is frightening, unless I could be convinced there could be a regulatory system that could prevent this product from reaching children," McKenzie said.

Haskins, retired from a career in substance abuse counseling, became SAM-Vermont's volunteer executive director in October. The group is affiliated with the national organization, she said, but receives no national money.

SAM-Vermont has also hired a Montpelier lobbying firm — Ellis Mills — in hopes of preventing legalization. As MacKenzie explained, "You have to have a knowledgeable presence in the Statehouse."

Not Now?

Many of the most powerful policy makers in Vermont are singing Shumlin's tune on marijuana legalization: Not yet. "I think we should go slow, get all the facts," said Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, who attended last Friday's RAND presentation. "I definitely have concerns." Chief among them, Donovan said, are the impact on children and on driving under the influence.

Shumlin's own health commissioner, Dr. Harry Chen, concurs. He's convinced that regular use of marijuana by youths lowers IQ, and that there's insufficient data from other states to settle those concerns. Asked how he would advise Shumlin on the issue, Chen said, "Not now."

Plenty of obstacles remain before a bill could ever reach Shumlin's desk.

"I don't expect it to come up this session," said Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I don't think we need to be the first in the Northeast."

As Zuckerman discussed his bill with a reporter last week in the Statehouse, House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) walked by. Asked for his take on the legislation, Smith reiterated, "I'm not a big fan."

But are pot proponents listening? It doesn't appear so. In a recent VICE magazine story titled "Can Vermont Bring Legal Weed to the Northeast?" Simon from the Marijuana Policy Project discussed Vermont's potential role in the national movement. "If Vermont legislators seize this opportunity to pass a marijuana regulation bill in 2015, that would set a strong example for legislators in other states," he told VICE.

Advocates might be expecting Shumlin to come through. The governor appeared at a New York City fundraiser for the Marijuana Policy Project in September 2012 and spoke on a fundraising conference call for the group the following September. His photo appears prominently on MPP's political action committee home page. That PAC helped Shumlin win his first gubernatorial election with an $8,000 contribution in 2010, and gave him $7,000 in 2012 and $2,000 last year.

NORML, another pro-legalization group, contributed $3,500 to Shumlin over three elections, including $2,000 in 2012, after he offered to become the movement's national spokesman. "My bias is toward legalization," Shumlin said on Monday, but he cautions against overstating his role on the issue. "I've been a strong supporter of sensible marijuana policy."

Vermont has actually lagged behind other states in relaxing marijuana policies. The marijuana dispensary law Shumlin signed in 2011 is one of the most restrictive in the nation. When Vermont enacted decriminalization in 2013, it was the 15th state to do so. At the same time, studies indicate that marijuana is more widely used here than in other states — and is more culturally accepted. A Castleton Polling Institute poll last year showed 57 percent of Vermonters support legalization.

Some of those are also anticipating business opportunities. Since 2013, five entities have registered new corporations in Vermont with the word "cannabis" in the company name.

Bob Bursky of Westminster West registered the name Southern Vermont Cannabis in November. He said he's part of small collective of people who believe marijuana should be legal. As for the group's plans, he said, "It's kind of a little bit of a touchy subject. Right now, we're defining that."

Club Metronome co-owners Christopher Walsh and Jason Gelrud, who hosted last week's gathering and are longtime supporters of legalization, said they would be interested in running a marijuana club, which they figure would be separate from the current bar.

As Walsh pointed out, "We're already selling one legal, regulated drug."

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