Pubdate: Thu, 31 Mar 2016
Source: Keene Sentinel (NH)
Copyright: 2016 Keene Publishing Corporation.
Author: Amber Phillips, The Washington Post


Over the past four years, marijuana legalization has come to the 
United States at a relatively fast pace, thanks to overwhelming 
support for it among young adults. But up until now, change has 
mostly come from the voters - sometimes in spite of lawmakers' wishes.

That balance could be shifting toward legislators, at least in one 
state: Vermont. In the next few weeks, Vermont could become the first 
state legislature to legalize marijuana. At Democratic Gov. Peter 
Shumlin's urging, a bill to make Vermont the fifth state to legalize 
recreational marijuana passed the state Senate in February and is 
being debated in the state House.

Its passage is not a given, but marijuana advocates are optimistic, 
both about the bill's chances and Vermont's ability to inject the 
marijuana legalization debate into even more state legislatures. For 
some marijuana advocates, the statehouse is yet one more path to 
legalization. But at least one well-known drug policy expert sees a 
clear benefit to letting lawmakers get ahead of legalization instead 
of reacting to a referendum.

Those opposed to marijuana legalization counter that it doesn't 
matter who's legalizing it; even the best intentions can't alleviate 
public safety challenges that come from legalization.

We readily admit Vermont is hardly a bellwether state for social 
issues. It is heavily Democratic and politically unique. Its most 
prominent politician is a democratic socialist senator named Bernie 
Sanders, I, who has long been vocal about changing drug laws.

But states have followed its lead on marijuana before. In 2004, 
Vermont was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana 
through its state legislature. Since then, another one-fifth of the 
country has followed suit.

Here's what you need to know about Vermont's marijuana debate and how 
it could change the legalization game.

What legalized marijuana in Vermont would look like

The bill, as it stands now, would allow possession for anyone over 
21, the age used in states like Colorado and Washington.

But unlike Colorado and Washington, which legalized marijuana in a 
matter of months after voters approve it, Vermont would wait more 
than a year after the bill's passage before residents could walk into 
a store and buy a joint.

If Shumlin signs the bill this summer, Vermont residents won't be 
able to buy marijuana legally until January 2018. For the first few 
years, the state will also limit the number of marijuana licenses for 
selling and growing marijuana. In addition, public schools in Vermont 
would receive state-mandated drug education programs about marijuana 
a full semester before it's legal.

The slow, methodical approach to legalization is the main difference 
between Vermont and other states that legalized it via ballot 
initiatives, said Matt Simon, the New England head of the Marijuana 
Policy Project, which is lobbying for the bill's passage. Lawmakers 
will give themselves and state agencies plenty of time to prepare, 
train staff and come up with new regulations.

There are a few other ways Vermont's bill stands out: After watching 
Colorado struggle with how to regulate edibles, Vermont won't be 
legalizing those at all. Lawmakers also resisted marijuana advocates' 
lobbying to allow people to grow marijuana plants in their own homes. 
And if you want to invest in one of Vermont's marijuana stores, 
you'll have to move to the state and become a resident; no 
out-of-state funding is allowed.

Overall, Simon's group is happy with the bill and just as happy that 
Vermont is the first serious attempt to legalize marijuana via 
lawmakers and not voters. (At least one other state, Rhode Island, is 
considering a bill to legalize marijuana, but it's too early to tell 
whether that bill has a shot. New Hampshire's state House became the 
first chamber of any state legislature to vote on legalization when 
it narrowly passed a bill in 2014 but it died in the state Senate. 
Advocates tried again this February; it was defeated.)

Vermont's state House seems much more agreeable to legalizing 
marijuana. Once skeptical, House Speaker and gubernatorial candidate 
Shap Smith, D, endorsed legalization this summer.

Simon says if Vermont lawmakers can successfully take full 
responsibility for legalizing marijuana, it will encourage other 
like-minded lawmakers to start crafting their own marijuana policy 
rather than reacting to a referendum.

"Legislators should see what's happening here and see they can really 
have these conversations in a mature away and get beyond the giggle 
factor," he said.

The case against ballot initiatives

Ballot initiatives are the go-to method for marijuana legalization 
advocates for a reason. For one thing, advocates can shape the policy 
they want instead of trying to lobby lawmakers. And they've been 
pretty successful when it comes to marijuana. Outside of the outlier 
of Ohio, advocates' only notable defeat by ballot was in Oregon in 
2012 - and voters there legalized marijuana two years later.

There is also the simple fact that lawmakers with jobs on the line 
are less apt to get ahead of social change. Should the nascent 
recreational marijuana experiment go sideways, lawmakers would rather 
not have that vote on their records. Take same-sex marriage, for 
example. Most of the state legislatures that approved same-sex 
marriage didn't do so until around 2013, when polls showed more than 
half the country supported it.

An October Gallup poll found 58 percent of Americans, the highest 
mark in almost half a century, favor legalizing marijuana.

Putting legalization to a vote is especially popular in a 
presidential year, when advocates can piggyback on the higher turnout 
and more intense media coverage. This year, Arizona, California, 
Nevada, Ohio, Maine and Massachusetts are all expected to have some 
kind of legalization question on their ballot, whether medical or recreational.

But as The Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham noted in January, 
researchers have argued that ballot initiatives risk glossing over 
boring-but-important details, which so happen to be the very same 
information lawmakers spend countless hours chewing over.

"Ballot initiatives are a terrible way to make policy changes when 
the technical details matter," wrote drug policy expert Mark Kleiman 
in 2014. Kleiman ran Washington's regulation team after voters there 
legalized it in 2012.

Without lawmakers' input at both the state and federal level, Kleiman 
envisioned a not-too-distant future where the cannabis industry has 
an undue amount of power to shape legalization. And that, he says, is 
reason for even reluctant lawmakers to get off the sidelines on legalization.

What the critics say

Opponents to legalization argue the cannabis industry already has too 
much influence, no matter who legalizes marijuana. "My biggest 
concern is creating Big Marijuana - sort of like Big Tobacco," Kevin 
Sabet, a former drug policy official with the Obama administration 
and president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, told Vox in March.

SAM argues the same players that are active in ballot initiatives are 
funneling resources to shape Vermont's debate, so there's no real 
substantial difference in what Vermont lawmakers are considering to 
what Colorado or Washington voters decided. "It's a distinction 
without a difference," said Jeffrey Zinsmeister with SAM.

The legalization effort is also playing out against a backdrop of New 
England's opiate addiction epidemic, which Vermont is not immune 
from. Supporters of Vermont's bill argue legalizing marijuana will 
free up police to concentrate on heroin and painkiller overdoses. 
They also point out the bill will funnel tax revenue into treatment 
and recovery programs.

But opponents wonder if now is the best time to put yet another 
substance on the street - and make it even easier to obtain.

"Shouldn't we be trying to solve that problem first, before we 
introduce another drug that we all have to admit has mind-altering 
characteristics?" asked state Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, 
a Democrat, as the bill passed the Vermont state Senate in February.

We'll find out in a matter of weeks whether his colleagues in 
Vermont's House agree or disagree. And time will tell whether Vermont 
once again becomes a leader in how marijuana is legalized.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom