Pot Bill Passes Judiciary, Moves To Senate Finance

by Carla Occaso

MONTPELIER — It seems now that the legislature is on the brink of legalizing the sale of recreational pot, they are worrying more than ever about keeping it away from kids. Vermont Senate bill S.241 to legalize marijuana passed out of the Judiciary Committee January 29 by a 4 to 1 vote and was taken up in the Senate Finance Committee February 2.

Legislative Counsel Michele Childs gave committee members the rundown on what has happened with the bill so far. She explained how the bill tries to comply with a federal document called the “Cole Memo,” which pretty much says the federal government won’t interfere with a state’s move to legalize marijuana so long as the state has a well-regulated and well-enforced process for administering the sale and distribution of recreational marijuana — especially eliminating the black market, keeping it away from kids and preventing it from proliferating over neighboring borders. However, these guidelines were put out by the current (President Barack Obama) administration and could be reversed by a new president, Childs said.

“It is unclear, depending on who the new administration is,” Childs advised the committee. “We don’t know.” A new government could choose to enforce federal drug laws and shut down a state-sanctioned legalized marijuana operation.

Childs fielded a smattering of wide-ranging questions from the committee February 2. Many came from Senator Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, who had questions about the monitoring and inspection of cultivation sites from an agricultural perspective. He asked about labelling the product as potentially dangerous as well as close inspection of the grow sites for contaminants. “It looks like a Health Department thing coming from a kid who grew up on a dairy farm,” Westman said. “We had inspections every six months and if you didn’t pass, the Ag Department didn’t let you sell for 30 days.” Westman suggested marijuana cultivators should be subjected to similar scrutiny. “What does Public Safety know about growing? Seems more like Agriculture than Public Safety.” Westman said he did not want public health to take a back seat to other priorities as the bill advanced.

Senator Virginia Lyons asked about introducing marijuana use prevention education into the schools. She asked about tracking youth in diversion, advertising and other issues.

Childs said in the current bill the state would issue several license categories and nearly all the money would go toward law enforcement, prevention education and program administration. Licenses would be given to cultivators, laboratories and retail sites (no one group could have a license in more than one category except existing medical marijuana dispensaries — (such as the one on River Street in Montpelier). The money received from license fees would be divvied up evenly, with 25 percent going to addiction prevention, 25 percent going to addiction treatment, 25 percent going toward law enforcement and 25 percent going toward generally administering the program. Any additional money would go back toward prevention, treatment and enforcement, Childs said.

Also testifying was Shayne Lynn, executive director of Champlain Valley Dispensary, Inc. Lynn distributed information claiming his dispensary distributes pot to 60 percent of the registered medical marijuana patients. His dispensary was funded with private funding. His documentation stated his operation flounders due to financial regulations. “We cannot borrow capital to expand with the growing demand, and, as a non-profit, we do not have the ability to offer equity to private funders,” Lynn stated in a document to the Senate Finance Committee. “Currently we work with two state credit unions willing to be business partners with us in this industry … Prior to this, for two years, all business purchases were made on my personal credit card.” Lynn said he pays a $25,000.00 annual license fee per dispensary. He also said his operation has not made a profit and that all income has gone back into the operation. Still, they have grown in 2015, adding 25 new employees, including a human resource manager, lab director and controller. Since the federal government considers the company in the business of “drug trafficking,” he must pay an additional tax burden of 30 to 50 percent each year, Lynn states.

Previous Testimony In The Judiciary Committee

Home grown pot would be impossible to regulate, the substance is largely bad for public health (especially for youth), but money could be had. That was the word from an amalgam of testimony within the Senate Judiciary Committee during testimony in January. Backyard personal pot allotment restrictions are “unenforceable,” according to Keith Flynn, Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety.

Health Impact

Most scientific indicators show legalizing pot would have a largely negative health impact according to Dr. Harry Chen, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, when reading his report to the Judiciary Committee January 19. He agreed with committee member Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham, that health experts who issued the report put out by his department were “stacked against” legalization to begin with. But still, their compilation of 180 studies on the effects of marijuana indicated a conclusion that pot lowers the intelligence quotient, contributes to the high school drop out rate and increases most mental illness symptoms. Therefore, regardless of how adults use it, children should be protected.

“I don’t think we’re doing enough. The fact that we haven’t seen dramatic increase (in marijuana use) could be seen as a success. There is more we can do in terms of substance abuse in schools,” Chen told the committee. The Health Department report indicated that, while marijuana eased pain symptoms for people with cancer, AIDS, severe pain and multiple sclerosis, it worsened symptoms of psychosis, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, brain functioning, automobile operation, chronic bronchitis, pregnancy and future dependency.

Lori Emerson of the National Alliance of Mental Illness testified also on January 19 that cannabis adversely affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This area of the brain governs planning and organizational behavior. Long-term use has been linked to schizophrenia, she said. While “the public believes it is harmless,” the average potency has increased 103 percent from 1998 to 2008, she said.

Legalizing marijuana “will bring in 10,000 more users,” Emerson said, adding that Vermont’s hospitals and crisis units are already filled to capacity. Emergency rooms will not be able to handle the additional load, she said. “The Colorado black market is thriving, (and has seen) rising rates of unregulated marijuana crime.” Motor vehicle deaths in Colorado are up by 32 percent. Legalization will lead to exasperating problems, she concluded, saying it is her organization’s job to protect those individuals who fall prey to marijuana dependency. “We don’t want 20 new cases of cannabis-use psychosis,” she said.

Law Enforcement

And while law enforcement officials had previously testified against marijuana, on January 22, one testified in favor of legalization while the top law enforcement official in the state said it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark testified that “eliminating prohibition would get rid of a failed policy” and allow the state to focus on addiction. When pot is legalized, law enforcement personnel and training would need to be increased. However, legislators should make sure the infrastructure was in place to allow for regulation before pot is readily available. It should not be allowed before July, 2018, Clark said. Additionally, Vermont’s face of law enforcement, Keith Flynn, commissioner, Department of Public Safety, also sounded like legalizing marijuana would not be the end of the world. If money comes in, Flynn contested, a big piece of it would have to go to education.

Flynn said he had traveled to Colorado with other Vermont officials since Colorado legalized the recreational use of marijuana and “the sky has not fallen.” He said there are good points and bad points to what is going on there. The dispensaries are very well run and the big grow operations are run very professionally, he said. But public use goes virtually unhindered. “We were literally walking from one cloud to another,” he said. “Some people think it is a great idea … others don’t.”

As for how it would fly in Vermont, Flynn said he learned a few cautions from Colorado. For one thing, you can’t necessarily depend on getting money to the state. Colorado did not get the revenue they expected. And how the money is disbursed is also challenging, considering that marijuana is still considered illegal by the federal government — so some banks won’t handle pot money.

Flynn said, in his opinion, allowing home grow plots would open the window for an unregulated situation. “It is a drug. It is a dangerous substance. Some people become addicted. The only advice I would give as we move forward is to take a cautious approach. Do something that law enforcement is going to actually have the ability to support … I don’t think we can realistically wipe out the black market.”

The Finance Committee is scheduled to vote on the passage of S.241 February 5.

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