Pubdate: Mon, 21 Oct 2013
Source: Valley News, The (White River Junction, VT)
Copyright: 2013 The Valley News
Author: Peter Hirschfeld


Montpelier - Backers of a push to legalize marijuana in Vermont are
getting help from an unlikely source: retired police officers who
spent their careers enforcing cannabis laws.

Just months into Vermont's new policy of decriminalization, several
high-profile politicians are already talking about moving to outright
legalization. Gov. Peter Shumlin last month set the table for
legislative action in the next few years by indicating for the first
time publicly his support for a tax-and-regulate model.

At an event in the Statehouse next month, elected officials in favor
of legalization will look to an organization made up of retired law
enforcement officers to help make the case.

"I think the discussion has to continue to occur while we're setting
the table for the next couple years, and this is a great group to work
with because it's frontline law enforcement officers talking about the
reality of prohibition policies," said Sen. David Zuckerman, a
Democrat/Progressive from Chittenden County.

Peter Christ, a co-founder of the national group Law Enforcement
Against Prohibition (LEAP), worked for 20 years as a policeman in the
suburbs of Buffalo, N.Y. He said he's never made an argument in favor
of marijuana, only against prohibition.

"We didn't legalize alcohol in 1933 because it had medical uses and
studies said it was OK, and in fact no one in the repeal movement was
defending alcohol," Christ said. "All people said was we may always
have to have alcohol in our society, but we don't always have to have
Al Capone and drive-by shootings, so they took that out of the equation."

Christ said that chapter in U.S. history offers a useful starting
point for the legalization debate about to begin in Vermont.

"We still have an alcohol problem in this country," he said. "But we
don't have gangs and thugs running the marketplace."

Members of LEAP will be on hand for a roundtable discussion in Room 11
of the Statehouse on Nov. 12, where legislators and former police will
discuss the merits of legalization. No former law-enforcement officers
from Vermont are scheduled to attend.

If members of LEAP sound like unlikely voices to lead the charge for
legalization in Vermont, so perhaps is the person moderating the
event. As Senate minority leader, Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, is a
leader of the Vermont GOP. But while Republicans haven't
conventionally fallen in line behind drug reform laws, Benning said
legalization isn't at all at odds with a conservative platform.

"I am interested in moving the Republican Party especially in a new
direction, and my concern is that taxpayers are spending money, and
lots of money at that, on a battle that has not brought us success,"
Benning said.

Benning said legalization isn't about surrendering in the war on
drugs, but about finding a more successful strategy to wage the battle
against substance abuse.

"This conversation we're having is about trying to address this
country's drug problem in a different way than what we have been doing
for the past 60 years or so," said Benning, a longtime criminal
defense lawyer. "I want to get out of the business of prosecuting and
get into the business of keeping people away from drugs."

During his years in the Vermont House, Zuckerman helped build momentum
for what was a decade-long push for decriminalization. Now a member of
the Senate, he doesn't think the wait will be so long for
legalization, and that vote will come in 2015 or 2016.

Organizations like LEAP, Zuckerman said, will help build the political
will needed to bring reluctant lawmakers on board.

Christ was in Vermont for a speaking tour in June, and said messages
delivered by former law enforcement officers resonate with a swath of
the public that might not otherwise be so receptive to the concept of

"I spoke with four Rotary clubs and two Kiwanis organizations, and
there were 149 people at those six events," Christ said of his trip to
Vermont. "And out of those 149 people, 71 of them signed up with LEAP
at the end of the presentation."

Christ said his dislike of drugs generally wins him credibility with
the audience.

"I've buried more kids in the suburbs of Buffalo due to alcohol more
than any other drug. So what we should do is obvious - we should ban
it, right?" Christ said. "Well, no, because we know if we ban it we
create an enormous underground economy that creates its own set of
problems. And people are figuring out that the same logic applies to
other drugs."
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