Pubdate: Wed, 20 Apr 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Jess Bidgood


MONTPELIER, Vt. - First came Colorado and Washington. Then Alaska, 
Oregon and Washington, D.C. Now advocates for legal marijuana are 
looking to New England, hoping this part of the country will open a 
new front in their efforts to expand legalization nationwide.

But this largely liberal region is struggling with the devastating 
effect of opiate abuse, which is disrupting families, taxing law 
enforcement agencies and taking lives. And many lawmakers and public 
officials are balking at the idea of legalizing a banned substance, 
citing potential social costs.

"The shadow of the heroin epidemic is something that people think 
about when they think about the legalization, and they ask 
themselves, 'Are we sending the right message about legalization?' " 
said Shap Smith, the speaker of the House in Vermont, who is open to 
legalizing marijuana. "I think in the public's mind, it's making 
passage of this bill more difficult."

A Vermont bill supported by Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, and 
approved by the State Senate in February would create a regulated 
market for recreational marijuana in this deeply progressive state - 
the cradle of Phish and New England's proud hippie haven.

But the bill is hobbling through the House, where it was stripped 
this month of the parts that would allow legalization. As of Friday, 
it contains only a cautious provision to allow home-growing and 
legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana - well short of 
the regulated market that Mr. Shumlin has called for.

Lawmakers' largest concerns are those that have emerged in state 
after state as the legalization movement has taken off: use and abuse 
by young people, impaired driving and commercialization.

But the opiate crisis, in which heroin, fentanyl and other drugs have 
killed more than 2,000 people in New England in the last year, is a 
substantial stumbling block, complicating efforts throughout the 
region and figuring into anti-legalization political alliances.

"At a time when we are trying and working so desperately hard to get 
help to those who need it, telling young people to not do drugs, 
trying to eliminate some of the barriers to treatment and to promote 
recovery, this effort at legalization seems to be directly at odds 
with those efforts," said Maura Healey, the attorney general in 
Massachusetts and a Democrat, who opposes an initiative that is 
expected to land on the ballot in November. It would allow adults to 
possess up to 10 ounces of marijuana at home, permit edibles and 
create a regulated market.

Advocates are using the heroin crisis as an argument in favor of 
legalization, saying that it would move the substance out of the 
hands of traffickers and that it "would reduce the amount of 
interaction with hard drug dealers, period," said Matt Simon, the New 
England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a 
national organization working on legalization.

National advocates of legalization hope that with New England, they 
can find success in a new part of the country.

"One part of it is demonstrating quite powerfully that marijuana 
reform is not just a West Coast phenomenon; it's also an East Coast 
one," said Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

But the future of the Vermont bill is unclear. A bid to place a 
proposal on the ballot in Massachusetts is opposed by the state's 
most powerful politicians; a ballot question in Maine was held up by 
the secretary of state (although it may have new life); and officials 
in Rhode Island are moving slowly, partly to see what happens with 
their fellow New Englanders.

"I think if there was any motion in any state in the Northeast, Rhode 
Island would take it up very quickly," said State Senator Joshua 
Miller, a sponsor of a bill there that would legalize marijuana.

The heroin epidemic was at the center of debate in Massachusetts last 
week, when a coalition of state leaders - including Gov. Charlie 
Baker, a Republican, and Speaker Robert A. DeLeo of the House, a 
Democrat - announced a campaign against the initiative.

An analysis last month by WBUR, a public radio station in Boston, 
noted that all 85 marijuana-related ballot questions in 
Massachusetts's history had passed, and public opinion could well 
favor legalization this time around, too.

But in a statement, Mr. Baker argued that legalization would 
"threaten to reverse progress combating the growing opioid epidemic 
so this industry can rake in millions in profits."

The coalition also has the support of Mayor Martin J. Walsh of 
Boston, a recovering alcoholic who is widely admired for his 
outspokenness about substance abuse.

"It's definitely a personal issue," Mr. Walsh said in an interview. 
"I have too many people that I know that started their addiction road 
by smoking marijuana."

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol responded on Friday 
by highlighting Mr. Baker's and Mr. Walsh's support of policies that 
would loosen liquor regulations - although a graphic of the men with 
a speech bubble saying "Drink More Alcohol" was criticized as 
insensitive to Mr. Walsh.

The groups said opponents of legalization were unfairly conflating 
heroin and marijuana.

"There is no more evidence that using marijuana leads to heroin than 
there is that riding a tricycle leads to joining the Hells Angels," 
Jim Borghesani, the campaign's communications director, said in a statement.

In states that have legalized marijuana, voters, not lawmakers, made 
the decision. That could become the case in Maine, which has a 
libertarian streak and began decriminalizing marijuana decades ago. A 
proposed ballot initiative there was halted when the secretary of 
state invalidated thousands of signatures, but it was recently 
granted a new review.

If that initiative makes the ballot, "I think they've probably got a 
relatively good chance of passage," said Mark Brewer, a political 
scientist at the University of Maine.

Health officials in that state are considering whether to make opiate 
addiction a qualifying condition for the use of medical marijuana. On 
Tuesday, Maine's Department of Health and Human Services heard 
testimony from advocates who said marijuana could help treat opiate 
withdrawal, and from experts who disagreed.

Vermont does not have a referendum process, and that has made the 
state a test case for legislative approval.

Mr. Shumlin, who is in his final term, said a carefully constructed 
bill legalizing marijuana could raise tax dollars that could be used 
to combat substance abuse and improve public safety.

"If Vermont really is the first state that writes a cautious, 
sensible bill that's adopted through a legislative process and signed 
by a governor, that would be a big deal," Mr. Shumlin said in an 
interview. "It would be a big step forward for legalization."

Many law enforcement officials are opposed.

"All assets - whether it be rehabilitation, medical, law enforcement 
- - we should be focusing our assets on opiate addiction," said George 
Merkel, the police chief in Vergennes and the president of the 
Vermont Police Association. "That's a reason not to legalize 
marijuana, because it's going to make things even worse."

The bill advanced on Friday by the House Ways and Means Committee in 
Vermont would create permits for residents to grow marijuana for 
personal use, but it would not legalize the sale of the drug.

In a statement, Mr. Shumlin welcomed the development. "The 
committee's action today takes a step towards addressing the 
nonsensical system that asks the one in eight Vermonters who admit to 
using marijuana on a monthly basis to buy it from a drug dealer," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom