By Lee J. Kahrs, The Reporter
BRANDON— There is both support and concern among state and local officials regarding the recreational marijuana bill, which was approved by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Phil Scott in January.
Bill H.511, which allows the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana and two mature and four immature marijuana plants per dwelling unit by people 21 or older, will go into effect on July 1, 2018.
Vermont is the first state to approve recreational use of marijuana legislatively without a public referendum.
And while the Senate passed the bill by voice vote, the House approved the bill by a vote of 81-63. Two local state representatives, Democrat Steve Carr and Republican Butch Shaw, represent Brandon, Pittsford, and Sudbury in the Vermont house. Carr voted for H.511, and Shaw voted against. Both outlined their reasons for their vote in conversations with The Reporter, a sister publication of the Mountain Times.
“I support and voted for the bill that passed on marijuana,” Carr said in an email response. “Vermont first passed the medical marijuana piece, then a couple of years later decriminalized marijuana making it a misdemeanor crime and now has fully legalized it. With a lot of scrutiny at each of those stages, the time has come to put it all together.”
But Rep. Butch Shaw said he voted “No” because he was waiting for a preliminary report from the governor’s Marijuana Advisory Commission, due on Jan. 18. The commission was part of the original marijuana legalization bill that the House refused to take up last June at the end of the 2017 session. Instead, the House voted to delay any marijuana legalization legislation until that commission’s preliminary report this month, and the governor agreed.
“Without information from that report, other questions were raised for me,” Shaw said, citing testimony from mental health experts on the negative effects of marijuana on brain development in people under the age of 25.
“The argument is used that people can use alcohol and tobacco, which also can have negative effects, but those products are extremely regulated,” he said. “So when Vermont moves forward to fully realize possession and use of marijuana, we should know if we should go down the path of fully regulating it.”
Shaw also said he did not like the fact that there are no provisions in H.511 for prevention, education, or protection of children in the bill, other than adding marijuana to existing alcohol laws regarding use around children, including in motor vehicles.
The Marijuana Advisory Commission was not formed to weigh whether or not to legalize marijuana – rather it was tasked with looking at how legalization would affect education, public health, public safety, and taxation and regulation, and to make recommendations on the way forward.
Without the promised preliminary report, Shaw said he felt passing H.511 would be less irresponsible because future legalization bills may negate what was just put in place.
“Without the commission’s report, we’re just hoping that there will be information that will help steer us,” he said. “The big question is, ‘What’s next?’ How do we go from this legislation to a fully taxed and regulated model?”
Carr said he is satisfied with the enforcement measures that are in place.
“A couple years ago there were only something like 14 specialized policemen on marijuana detection and there are now about 52 police officers trained to identify drivers that are impaired,” he said. “The new law doesn’t allow use when children are present. Individuals over 21 years of age can possess up to an ounce and up to two plants.”
He added that he has faith in the advisory commission to make the necessary recommendations to move ahead with more safeguards and full legalization.
But Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell echoed Shaw’s concerns about H.511, and said a letter from the Vermont Sheriff’s Association, the Vermont Police Chiefs’ Association, and the Vermont Police Association outlines the concerns of Vermont law enforcement.
“I think it’s shortsighted and will lead to future problems that people don’t anticipate,” Brickell said in a phone interview. “I’m frustrated with the fact that the Legislature would go against the governor’s signed executive order regarding further study, which [created the Marijuana Advisory Commission and] said there would be no further movement until that commission report was issued. We don’t have more important issues for us to vote on? They were so hell bent on pushing this through, it didn’t matter what studies were out there or what law enforcement thought about it, and for the governor to go along is ironic.”
Brickell also said there is no roadside test to detect whether drivers are impaired by marijuana, and he disputed Carr’s claim that there are plenty of officers trained to perform roadside detection.
“I recently requested a Drug Recognition Expert through dispatch and tried reaching three of them with no luck,” he said. “In Rutland County? How is that possible?”
Brickell said the current drug tests aren’t fair to marijuana smokers either because they only test for any drugs in a subject’s system. THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, is detectable in the human body for at least a month after a person smokes or ingests it.
“The way the law is, it’s not fair to everybody, even medical marijuana patients,” Brickell said.
The shelf life of THC in the body, coupled with the fact that marijuana is still an illegal drug under federal law, also has economic repercussions in Vermont and many other states. Shaw and Brickell both pointed to a serious problem in the transportation and construction industries in Vermont, where there is a shortage of qualified workers.
“They can’t find qualified workers because not enough people are able to pass the pre-employment drug test,” Shaw said.
Those are tests required by federal agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which sets regulations in concert with the U.S. Department of Labor, which administers the Workmen’s Compensation disability compensation program.
Transportation regulations pertaining to interstate truck drivers are set by the U.S. Department of Transportation. As long as the U.S. government classifies marijuana an illegal drug, it will continue to appear on the list of banned substances in pre-employment drug screens.
Brickell said people will read the letter from law enforcement criticizing H.511 and not be surprised, but that they underestimate the police.
“When people read that letter, they’ll say that cops are always against pot,” he said, “but we know it has negative effects on a young brain, and that it can be habit-forming, like smoking, and we know about the effects on the construction and transportation industries. Cops are not so narrowminded that we’re against it because it’s illegal. It affects our lives in so many ways.”
Brickell said that he, too, would like to see the commission’s report before going forward with legalization.
“There is another side to this,” he said. “There are health care costs, education costs, emergency room visits, and we’re acting like it’s no big deal because the state government wants to rush it through and I think that’s irresponsible.”
Three Rutland County Republican Senators – Brian Collamore, Peg Flory and David Soucy – all indicated that they voted against H.511 in the Senate voice vote. They said they wished more time had been taken with the measure, adding that it didn’t adequately address marijuana-impaired driving.
Though there was no roll call on the Senate floor, Collamore estimated that the vote was 21-9, the same as when the chamber approved essentially the same legislation in June. “That’s my guess,” he added.
“My stance,” Collamore said, “has been consistent all along. Until we have a court-proven way to test people roadside, I just can’t support it, and we don’t have it.”
Shaw said that although he voted against the bill, he noted that he did not receive a single phone call or email from his constituents in the days leading up to the House vote.
“I’m sure I’ve got people who are happy I voted ‘No’, and others who are unhappy that I voted ‘No’,” Shaw said. “I will say it was not partisan. There were Democrats who voted ‘No’, and Republicans who voted ‘Yes’.”
Carr cited surveys, including the 2014 RAND Corporation Study, that found strong support in the state for legalization, reporting that roughly 80,000 Vermonters said they use marijuana at least monthly.
“So, it’s time that this was done,” Carr said, “and I’m confident with the work that was done and with the commission’s report that the legalization will go well.”
Editor’s note: A section of this article regarding the Rutland County senators, including quotes from Sen. Collamore, were sourced from VT Digger and an article by Alan J. Keays.
By Lee J. Kahrs, The Reporter