Legalizing marijuana: Get ready for the debate

While some people say we should wait and see, and others are saying now’s the time or it should already have happened, one thing is clear: There will be a debate on marijuana legalization during the upcoming legislative session.

It was during the last legislative session that Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, introduced a bill to allow the possession, cultivation and sale of marijuana. Rep. Christopher Pearson, P-Burlington, introduced a parallel bill in the House that mirrors Zuckerman’s proposed legislation.

Both bills followed a state-commissioned study from the Rand Corporation that did not make any recommendations, but studied the potential impacts — from financial to health — of Vermont being the first state east of the Mississippi River to legalize marijuana, and the first state to ever legalize it through the legislative process rather than by a ballot initiative.

Zuckerman’s bill is actually one of 10 marijuana-related bills currently pending before lawmakers during the second half of the legislative biennium, with topics ranging from taxation and law enforcement to expansion of the state’s current medical marijuana laws and the packaging of edible marijuana products.

Taxation

Motivations for legalization vary greatly among supporters, from those who see it as a civil liberties issue — what you do with your body is your own business — to the hypocrisy of alcohol being legal while marijuana is not. For others, the motivation is financial.

The Rand study projects that Vermont could collect anywhere from $20 million to $70 million annually from the taxation of marijuana, an attractive proposition as the state is looking at a projected $66 million budget shortfall. The bills from Zuckerman and Pearson outline how taxation might work.

Both bills call for an excise tax of $40 an ounce on processed marijuana, $15 an ounce for any other type of marijuana and $25 for each immature plant sold by a cultivator.

Rather than go directly into the state’s General Fund, the money raised from the taxes would support public initiatives to educate the public on the hazards of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, criminal justice and substance abuse programs, law enforcement, and medical research on marijuana.

Exactly how much the state would stand to gain is anyone’s guess, with the Rand study saying Vermont would take in more revenue if it were the first state in the northeast to go the legalization route, an acknowledgment that legal marijuana would be a significant draw for many of the tens of millions of people who live within a day’s drive of Vermont.

During its 2015 fiscal year that ended in June, Colorado — which does not have the population density in adjacent states that Vermont has — collected $70 million in marijuana taxes.

Law enforcement

Interstate trafficking is one of the issues raised in guidelines to states with legal marijuana from the U.S. Justice Department, which still considers it to be illegal. At the state level, lawmakers are looking to address a different kind of law enforcement issue: stoned driving.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, has introduced legislation that would task the state’s Department of Health and the Department of Public Safety to establish standards to determine what constitutes impairment.

Currently, the Vermont State Police, for example, employ what they refer to as “drug recognition experts,” who make subjective judgments on the side of the road to determine if a driver is under the influence of marijuana. One lawmaker would like to create a more concrete test.

Rep. David Potter, D-West Rutland, is the sponsor of a bill that require drivers suspected of driving under the influence to submit to a saliva test. Current law states that a driver who travels Vermont’s roads has given consent to submit to a breath test, and the proposed legislation would expand that implied consent to include a saliva test.

The bill would make driving with any level of any drug in one’s system a crime; individuals with a prescription for a drug could use that prescription as an affirmative defense. A defendant would also have the right to have the saliva sample tested by an independent laboratory for analysis.

Medical marijuana

In 2004, the Legislature gave its consent for the therapeutic use of marijuana, and is today one of 23 states — plus the District of Columbia — to allow the practice.

However, Vermont has some of the highest thresholds to qualify for medical use, restricting prescriptions to people who suffer from what the law refers to as “debilitating medical conditions” such as AIDS, cancer or multiple sclerosis. The patient must also be under the care of the prescribing doctor for at least six months prior to receiving a prescription.

Rep. James Masland, D-Thetford, has introduced a bill that would add the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of conditions that would allow a patient to receive a medical marijuana prescription.

Masland is also the co-sponsor of a bill introduced by Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, which would similarly add post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying diagnosis to receive medical marijuana. Additionally, however, Till’s bill would waive the requirement for a patient to be under the care of the prescribing doctor for six months provided the patient is a military veteran who has received a diagnosis of PTSD from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Edibles

Early conversation on marijuana legalization has taken up a fair amount of time on a relatively minor facet of the issue, and that is how to address marijuana-infused edible products. Scattered press reports from Colorado tell stories of people either ingesting too much for their own comfort, or unknowingly eating an edible that resembles something as benign as a cookie or cupcake.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, has introduced a bill that would require edible or potable marijuana products for sale to be contained in single dose, child-resistant packaging and be labeled with the amount of THC — the active chemical in marijuana — in each dose.

Lawmakers will return to Montpelier for the 2016 session on Jan. 5.

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