August 24, 2016

Legalization: still more questions than answers

Dear Editor,

With state and national elections looming, marijuana legalization has taken somewhat of a back seat to the issues of war, terrorism, the shaky economy (Vermont’s and the country’s), huge deficits (ditto), the Brexit, the Zika virus, opiate addiction … the list goes on. The citizens of Maine and Massachusetts are dealing with contentious ballot initiative campaigns on legalization, but that distant thunder has been faint here in Vermont.

The issue is not going away and will continue to be part of Vermont legislative sessions and statewide discussions for years to come. Vermont lawmakers took a refreshingly deliberate approach to the issue, rejecting outright legalization while hinting at reforms that could pass, like further decriminalization. Still, the debate was plagued by too many unanswered questions and, most notably, a lack of good data, even from states where legalization has occurred.

While new information is coming to light, there is still a great deal we don’t know, including how to decrease youth use while allowing for advertising encouraging adult use.

The data from states like Colorado, which legalized recreational use in 2012, is frustratingly difficult to decipher, for all sides involved in the debate.

The 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey (HKCS) results turned out to be “statistically insignificant,” which means the data can’t tell us whether use rates have gone up or down.

Proponents of legalization tried hard to paint the results in their favor, but that was very dubious. A thorough analysis of the survey was prepared by David W. Murray of the Hudson Institute. He explains that  the Colorado survey can’t be compared to any of the national surveys, including the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, and the Monitoring the Future Survey (both of which show an increase in use). In fact, Murray goes on to explain why the 2015 HKCS survey can’t even be compared to the same survey from 2013 “because of sample size and response rates, but further because a different set of schools was included in the 2015 iteration, not reporting, for instance, some large school districts near urban areas, where rates of use are often higher.”

Vermont lawmakers need to continue to practice patience and deliberation on marijuana legalization as we all wait for better data and more answers to come out of states like Colorado.

Vermont decriminalized marijuana in 2013, with the result that people who had been jailed solely for possession of small amounts have been released and can request that their records be expunged. New arrests now result in fines and education programs.

In this year’s legislative session, the House almost passed a measure to expand decriminalization to include home growing, and this is something that should be pursued further, with more attention to how it would be monitored, what the civil penalties should be, and so on. The Dutch have made this work, after a fashion, and there’s no reason why Vermont can’t do even better.

We should also make it a state priority to reduce all substance use, legal and illegal, by funding effective education and prevention programs aimed at all age groups. If we get our priorities right, we’ll find the money, and we’ll be repaid well in reduced demands on our healthcare and law enforcement systems. That would be very good news indeed.

Dean Whitlock, Thetford, Vt.

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