Public Weighs in on Vermont Marijuana Legalization Debate

Vermonters on both sides of the passionate marijuana legalization debate lined up at the Statehouse in Montpelier to speak directly to key committee members in the House of Representatives about proposals to authorize state-sanctioned marijuana sales.

Supporters told the House lawmakers now is the time to end the era of prohibition in the state.

"Can any of you think of one good outcome that's come out of our present policy?" asked Kimberly Cheney, a former Vermont Attorney General who supports legalizing and regulating marijuana sales in Vermont. "I cannot."

A bill that already passed the Vermont Senate would allow a limited number of licensed retailers to sell small amounts of marijuana to people 21 and up for personal use, with tax revenues funding drug enforcement and education efforts.

The proposed sales would start in January 2018, under the bill that passed the Senate.

A main goal of backers, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, is to drive down the black market for pot, they have said.

"I will continue to use marijuana with or without this bill," said legalization supporter Andrew Swingforth. "We can either give the money to the black market or give it back to Vermont, and thusly, the people."

But opponents expressed worries, ranging from potential impacts on young people's developing minds, to wider public health concerns, and whether the state will see harms from drugged driving.

"It can exacerbate anxiety, depression, it can set off psychosis," warned Sarah Mason, an opponent of legalization.

"Cannabis use and subsequent driving does pose a very real and measurable danger to residents and visitors to Vermont," cautioned Sgt. Jim Roy of the Colchester Police Department, a trained drug recognition expert.

Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said her committee will formally deliberate the bill, perhaps as early as next week. But whether the group will support the measure is still unclear.

"I'm still listening, still taking it all in," Grad said after Thursday night's hearing.

Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany, another judiciary committee member, said she will continue to express her opposition to the bill in committee.

"I would vote against it," Strong told necn. "For much of my life, I've tried to work to help people find what makes them healthier and improves their lives, and this doesn't do that, I don't believe."

Despite that view, many Vermonters do smoke marijuana each month, according to a recent study by the Rand Corporation.

The report, which has been referred to frequently this legislative session in Montpelier, found about 80,000 Vermonters consume marijuana each month, paying perhaps $150-million a year to black market sellers.

If the bill does not pass the House before the end of the session, the topic would likely come up again next year. The support may not be there from the governor's office, though, because Gov. Shumlin is not running for re-election in November.

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