Thousands of Vermonters say they're more likely to consume cannabis now that the drug is legal in this state, according to results of the new VPR - Vermont PBS Poll. But experts say it’s tough to know precisely how the advent of legalization will affect usage rates in Vermont.
About one quarter of Vermonters say they’re either very likely or somewhat likely to consume cannabis over the next year. And of that group, 23 percent say their inclination to partake is directly related to the fact that cannabis is now legal in Vermont.
“I think that’s really the most interesting demographic,” said Eli Harrington, the co-founder of cannabis advocacy outfit called Heady Vermont. “And, you know, that’s a lot of people who are your doctor, your lawyer, your teacher.”
Harrington already has a term for that demographic: “The canna-curious.”
“And so we sort of talk about an evolution of people who are canna-curious becoming canna-conscious and then, if they choose, becoming canna-consumers,” he said.
For Harrington and other cannabis enthusiasts, the partial lift on prohibition in Vermont is an important evolution in the state’s drug policy. As of July 1, it's legal to possess up to one ounce of dried marijuana flower, and to cultivate a small number of plants at home.
“Within the cannabis community, you can kind of just feel the sigh of relief from people,” Harrington said.
For others though, the attitudinal shifts captured by the poll paint a much bleaker picture.
“That really validates our concerns,” said Guy Page, with Physicians, Families & Friends for a Better Vermont, a group that opposes legalization efforts. “The point is that access to marijuana leads to increased usage of marijuana.”
That cannabis legalization would lead to increased usage rates might seem like a reasonable supposition. But drug policy researcher Beau Kilmer, who works at the RAND Corporation, says there’s no hard evidence yet to support it.
“When it comes to cannabis legalization in the United States, our data infrastructure is weak,” Kilmer said.
While surveys like the one commissioned by VPR and Vermont PBS might capture Vermonters’ openness to using cannabis, Kilmer said they don’t provide the data needed to understand the true impact of legalization laws.
“When we begin to think about the health consequences, both the risks and the benefits of legalization, we really need to know more about total consumption and the types of products,” he said.
Kilmer said the relative lack of empirical data is something policymakers should keep in mind as they ponder the future of legalization in Vermont.
According to the poll, 56 percent of Vermonters support expanding the legalization statute, to include a retail market for commercial sales. That compares with 31 percent who don’t support that leap.
Kilmer said the way in which Vermont configures that market could have real consequences.
“So if you’re going to allow for-profit companies to get into these markets, they’re going to be trying to nurture and trying to create more heavy users,” Kilmer said.
In the state of Washington, for example, usage rates among 18 to 25 year olds have actually declined slightly since that state adopted a retail cannabis market, according to Kilmer. In Colorado, he said, the rates have increased.
“One of the lessons here is we need to pay close attention to what’s happening in these different states, and not just lump all these legalization states together, because it could be confusing the inferences that we make,” Kilmer said.
Kilmer said the state could also consider other options for a commercial market, like a state-run monopoly, or giving commercial licenses only to nonprofit corporations.
Even with all the talk about legalization in Vermont, most Vermonters still have no interest in the drug. The poll found that 56 percent of residents are either not likely at all to, or definitely will not, consume cannabis in the next year.
The VPR - Vermont PBS Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters questions to learn where they stand on key issues and how they feel about candidates for statewide office. Explore the full results of the July 2018 poll here.