Should Vermont legalize marijuana? It's a question that has been animating public forums around the state over the last few months in anticipation of the next legislative session, where it is likely to spur even more debate.
Last week, a group gathered at Lyndon State College to exchange views.
The forum at LSC was organized by a St. Johnsbury Group called the Drug Abuse Resistance Team. The discussion included people on all sides of the issue, sitting in circles, passing a microphone around. With college students in the audience, the focus was often on health risks to young pot smokers. But Laura Subin, director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, told the audience that the status quo has not worked to stem its use or abuse.
“We’ve tried all these years of prohibition. It’s failed. Marijuana is easy to get, it’s widely used, we’re not successfully keeping it away from teenagers," Subin says. "To the extent that there is problematic behavior associated with marijuana, it’s an issue we should tackle anyway and we believe it’s time to leave aside the failed policy of prohibition and come up with new approaches that will be more successful."
Approaches, Subin suggested, like comprehensive teen education about the effects of marijuana and better training and equipment for law enforcers.
Several speakers said they thought too many marijuana smokers are being jailed for what they called victimless crimes. Others, including Lyndon State student Mike Jones, said they were not convinced that the substance was addictive.
“Because I know people who have smoked for years and they have said they can quit just like that because from the research I’ve seen, it doesn’t seem that it’s chemically addictive,” Jones said.
But Ed Baker, a licensed drug and alcohol addiction counselor, warned that marijuana does in fact affect the developing brain in dangerous ways, if used excessively.
“When you have adolescents smoking marijuana they interfere with the normal development of their brain in areas that regulate memory, learning, and motivation. We have research now that shows that adults who began smoking marijuana during adolescence lose eight or nine I.Q. points,” Baker said.
But Lyndon State student Nick Morelli thinks regulating marijuana would weaken the black market and make it harder for underage users to get it.
“I don’t know if anybody’s ever heard of a drug dealer using ID’s, but if legalization did occur then there would be somebody at the counter to make sure that whoever was buying it was of age,” Morelli said.
Some adults who treat youth for addiction responded that making pot legal would somehow sanction its use, not just in smoking materials, but in foods and vapors attractive to kids. Debby Haskins, a drug and alcohol counselor representing a new volunteer group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, cautioned that marijuana, like tobacco and alcohol, would rack up more social costs, in the form of treatment, highway accidents, and the loss of productivity, than it would bring in new tax revenues.
“What is it about this drug that’s going to do such wonderful things for Vermont? It doesn’t make you smarter,” said Haskins.
One Lyndon State student noted during the forum that a typical marijuana joint contains more tar than a tobacco cigarette.
Laura Subin, of the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, say that in other states where pot is newly legal, some of the tax revenue being generated by pot is used to educate marijuana users about its risks, and also, for some, medical benefits.
“Our kids are going to demand honest education instead of the scare tactics that have been the methodology to help try and reduce young peoples’ use of harmful substances,” Subin said.
Subin, an attorney, said prohibiting pot use by adults in their own homes violates civil liberties.
Alex Vollono, a Lyndon State student, agreed.
“I feel like this issue is not really of a health issue. I feel it’s more of a human rights thing, it’s more, 'you can’t tell people what they can and can’t do with their own bodies,'” said Vollono.
Lawmakers will no doubt hear an equally wide range of views if they hold hearings on marijuana legalization this year. But Laurel Ruggles, a communications specialist at Northern Vermont Regional Hospital, hopes they won’t rush into anything, and take a hard look at data still to come from other states who are plowing this new ground.
“I think in Vermont that we can wait," Ruggles says. "We can wait a few more years and see what happens and so that some of this data and the evidence does come out and we can do a better job of it.”
The forum leaders encourage participants to continue exchanging ideas at the organization’s Facebook page.