Beyond Prohibition: Why Consider Cannabis Regulation for Vermont?

As the House considers a bill that would end the prohibition of cannabis for adults, I am keeping an open mind. As someone who attended and worked in a public high school in Vermont, I can say with some authority that the current state of affairs with regard to cannabis access by young people under prohibition is unacceptable, and none of the damages associated with its use are being adequately addressed. Under prohibition, marijuana is easily accessible on any given day in any given high school. Just ask a teenager. Maintaining prohibition ensures that not only will cannabis remain prevalent in our schools, but that it will continue to be made available by unscrupulous drug dealers who will probably be peddling other, more harmful, substances. To allow a criminally operated black market to persist without exploring other options that could undercut it would be irresponsible, in my opinion. If a regulatory scheme can be devised that would limit or restrict access to cannabis in schools while at the same time providing the necessary resources for robust prevention and education programs (using cash resources diverted from the aforementioned black market!), I would consider supporting it.

As for adults, I have yet to hear any reasonable argument that justifies easy access for all to alcohol and tobacco (which kill 1000+ Vermonters every year and burden our healthcare system) while prohibiting something that is less harmful by almost any measure – when used in moderation by responsible adults, of course. I have heard some people say that we shouldn’t be legalizing one more harmful substance. This seems to imply that there is a threshold in the number of legally sanctioned products beyond which we should not pass, or that prohibition is an effective mitigator of harm. There is a long list of things that are potentially or definitively harmful for individuals and society but that are legal, ubiquitous, and widely used: alcohol; tobacco & e-cigarettes; added sugar; junk food loaded with salt and fat; ultra-violent video games; prescription drugs of all shapes and colors for everything that ails us or doesn’t; television; etc. The harms and social consequences of these can be amplified by overuse, abuse, and inadequate regulation. As a thought experiment, if we choose to continue to prohibit cannabis for adults as a way to protect our youth, I would strongly suggest that we explore prohibiting the retail sale of tobacco products as well, since they are used by teenagers, kill about a thousand Vermonters every year, and are addictive. I’m sure we would hear loud cries about the revenue implications of that from our retail establishments, which would put us in the strange position of having to uphold the legal sale of an addictive and deadly product for purely economic reasons, or in defense of an individual’s freedom to do harm to oneself. And consider the example of sugar-sweetened beverages; we know full well that cheap drinks overloaded with sugar contribute to the alarming rise in adverse health conditions in young people, including hyperactivity, diabetes, and obesity, which shorten lives and burden our national healthcare system to the tune of billions of dollars in unnecessary expenditures – which directly impacts state budgets and local property taxes. Yet when we attempt to impose a “sin tax” on them to pool resources to offset the expenses they inflict, people are up in arms. The “sin tax” on cannabis is proposed to be 25%, and all of the revenue would be used for prevention, education, treatment, law enforcement, and regulatory expenses. Bear in mind that this tax would be imposed on an existing market that enjoys $125-225 million in un-taxed, unregulated sales every year in Vermont.

I don’t think that the debate about the regulation or prohibition of cannabis should be based solely on the presence and measure of its risks. Cannabis use is obviously not risk-free, and there are demonstrable harms and consequences to young people and certain adults. But these risks and harms are present whether it’s legal or not. The fact is, humans have used cannabis for thousands of years and will continue to do so with or without government intervention. The discussion around cannabis policy should be grounded in finding a better approach to manage something that will continue to be used and abused regardless of what the law says, and to put more resources into the education, prevention, and treatment of all drug-related problems.

Prohibition has failed on many fronts and only ensures that black market sales prop up violent cartels and shady drug dealers, not to mention private prisons and an inequitable justice system. From the perspective of social consequence and personal liberty, it defies logic that a responsible adult can’t purchase and use cannabis in moderation and in the privacy of their own home without being considered a criminal, but you and I can suck down a pack of cigarettes and a fifth of whiskey every day with legal sanction. Call me a libertarian if you like, but I prefer rationality and consistency in public policy.

Having said all that, the devil is in the details, and we all know that government has a knack for screwing up even the simplest of things. And this is not a simple matter. So while I remain philosophically willing to support a regulatory regime that takes a comprehensive and common sense approach to managing cannabis use with an emphasis on youth education and prevention, I’m not convinced that the current proposal put forward by the Senate is sufficient. If the bill continues to move through the committee process in the House, I will monitor it and work to ensure that it addresses real concerns. Let me know what you think. 234-9125 or tzagar@leg.state.vt.us.

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