With the 2018 legislative session underway, marijuana legalization is once more at the top of the to-do list, with some form of legalization expected to pass within the first few months. In support, Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman and a coalition of cannabis reform groups, medical marijuana patients and caregivers, farmers, and local business representatives are gathering at the Statehouse on January 9 for a full day of press, advocacy, and education.
The goal of this event, according to the organizers, is to further inform lawmakers and the public on the importance of timely cannabis reform in Vermont. This comes in the face of increased resistance to the proposed legalization by newly formed groups, such as Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont, who expressed their opposition at the State House on December 22.
Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman sat down with The Bridge to discuss the upcoming legislation, the arguments of those who oppose it, and why he believes legalization is the best path forward for Vermont.
The Bridge: Tell us about the upcoming day of advocacy at the statehouse.
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman: On January 9, we are having a citizens’ advocacy day for cannabis reform at the State House to continue to bring more voices from across the state into the political process. We are hosting this day to encourage citizens to support cannabis reform for whatever reason. Some support it because they understand that drug dealers don’t check IDs, and youths have unfettered access. Some people support it because they are adults who responsibly consume cannabis on occasion but feel like they always have to do it in the shadows; some people support it because they believe it should be part of our above-ground economy and would be a benefit to the state.
Bridge: Considering how easy it already is for young people to get marijuana, how could legalization possibly make it more difficult for them?
Zuckerman: Certainly some of the opponents roll out the argument that it would be easier to get; I think that is completely untrue. What I would argue is quite the opposite. A drug dealer doesn’t check IDs or care how old anybody is. They just want to make some money, and in fact they may offer them something else more addictive to get more repeat customers. So I would argue that legalization through a regulated system would actually reduce access to that group of young people. In Colorado, you have to show an ID just to walk into the stores, much less purchase products. Yes, there probably will continue to be an underground market; however, in Colorado, 60 percent of the market has come aboveboard. Also the underground market there is being fed by their loosely regulated medical cannabis market, and we have a very highly regulated one, so far less will be diverted into the underground market, and therefore youth access will decline.
Bridge: What do you take from other states’ experiences with legalization, particularly any downsides, to shape the legislation in Vermont to avoid some of the more negative results?
First, what we have noticed in the states that have rolled it out, the fears predicted by the opposition have not really been borne out in any grand scale. Otherwise that would be front page news and those states would have rolled back the laws. That has not happened. However, there have been a couple things that have not rolled out well. In Colorado, there was very little regulation on edibles, and you had extremely strong products in servings that were disproportional to what people should consume, so there’s no doubt that we should either delay allowing edibles or not have them. If at some point we do, they should be in single-serving packages and not appearing in child-oriented candy. In other states, they’ve also run out of cannabis, and we want to make sure we don’t run out because otherwise the whole idea of eliminating or reducing the underground market disappears.
Bridge: Considering the huge problem with opioids, why would it be helpful to make marijuana legal? Doesn’t that present a mixed message?
Zuckerman: Ultimately, I think it’s important to look at every drug individually. Would we say because of the opioid crisis, let’s ban pharmaceutical drugs? We don’t say that, and yet pharmaceutical drugs are the main source of our opioid crisis. At the same time, many pharmaceutical drugs are beneficial to our medical system. What I find interesting is that cannabis is starting to be shown as both an alternative for some of the pain for which people are getting OxyContin and other gateway opioids, so why not use cannabis more and opioid-based pharmaceuticals less? Plus, we are constantly under pressure to have resources for prevention and education, and legalizing cannabis would give us the tax revenue to have a robust education, prevention, and treatment program.
Bridge: Do you believe that polls that show majority support for legalization in Vermont are accurate? If so, why not pursue a referendum or ballot measure as other states have done instead of legalizing through the legislature?
Zuckerman: Actually, in Vermont, we don’t have a referendum process. And regarding polling, I would say that more people support it than are publically willing to say they are, and therefore I think the polling is probably under-representing rather than over. Many people, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and so on, are hesitant to publicly announce their support of this because of the societal pressures that may come as a result.
Bridge: Of all the arguments on the “no” side of marijuana legalization, are there any you sympathize with or consider valid?
Zuckerman: Certainly some of the points our opponents make are very important with respect to how cannabis or any other substance that a young person uses in his or her teens can actually lead them to a life with a greater potential for addiction, and there’s no doubt those are very real issues. We need to have a much better education and prevention system to slow this societal epidemic of younger people using substances that in the long term can have a serious effect on their lives. I think those are very real and valid concerns. Access is the issue, and as a society, we have to look at the best way to reduce it. Obviously, I’ve come to the conclusion that a regulated system is better than an unregulated underground one.
Bridge: Do you expect the legislation to pass in January or February?
Zuckerman: I certainly expect what is called the Washington DC model, H. 511, which would be a home production and home consumption bill, to pass fairly early in the session. What is now the further debate and discussion is whether or not a fully regulated system of production, sale, and so on, is going to make it across the finish line.
Bridge: Do you have any concern about the Justice Department in Washington, which is in direct conflict with states that have legalized cannabis? Might it open up Vermont to some aggressive action from the federal government?
Zuckerman: There’s no doubt that anything is possible. But they haven’t done much in this first year in states such as Colorado, Alaska, and Nevada, which are not particularly blue states. The federal government, or the Trump administration, is a little bit hamstrung, because if they really choose to go after this they’d be doing so in states he would need to get re-elected.
Bridge: As you know, Governor Phil Scott vetoed the first bill that passed. Did that veto—and the additional time it gave—help create a better bill this time around?
Zuckerman: The bill now is not significantly changed from what he vetoed in terms of the actual law affecting everyday Vermonters and their ability to produce and have their own. I don’t think his veto made this bill any better in that regard; it simply delayed things further. The other issue that he brought up with the original bill relative to what is in this one, is that bill had a commission looking at how to best implement a tax-and-regulate system. His veto backed that off to look at the issues that he has brought up, although the judicial committees had already been looking at those issues. This has been studied for four or five years in the legislature. While he may not have been overly involved in those reviews in the last few years, the legislature had been looking at those issues. Primarily, the only function of that veto was to significantly delay progress toward the ultimate resolution of this issue. In my opinion, I think that will actually hurt Vermont more than help it by delaying resources for highway safety, education, prevention, and treatment, as well as delaying the economic benefits that may well come from a taxed and regulated system.