The epidemic of drug addiction and overdoses gripping Vermont, and our country at large, cries out for reform. We must change the perception that jail is an effective treatment for the disease of drug addiction, and give mental health issues the attention and funding they deserve, an opinion I know many Vermonters share.
But the legalization and commercialization of another addictive drug—marijuana—is precisely the wrong way to address this critical problem. Legalization has nothing to do with whether we lock up pot users, and everything to do with making money. Marijuana industry lobbyists that are pushing legalization to the Vermont Legislature disingenuously conflate the two issues, claiming that the only way to stop imprisoning marijuana users is to legalize the drug. They also make sweeping claims about how commercialization will control the black market and make the drug “safer.”
But both claims are demonstrably false.
Already decriminalized in Vermont
First of all, we can stop jailing marijuana users without letting big business sell marijuana at retail outlets. Vermont has already decriminalized marijuana use for adults, and will not arrest or jail you if you possess an ounce or less of marijuana for personal use. And our Congress is already debating broader criminal justice reforms that may reduce the burden of arrests and imprisonment for drug offenses, especially on minority and low-income communities.
The pot lobby
Second, and more broadly, we know from other states’ experiences that the billion-dollar marijuana industry—the folks behind the legalization effort—is more interested in profits than our health and safety. Legalization means inviting a powerful lobby into Vermont that pushes hard against regulations. Pot lobbyists in Colorado defeated restrictions on pot ads aimed at children. They have opposed restrictions on marijuana potency. And they are fighting laws keeping pot shops away from schools, parks, and day care centers in Oregon. Vermont legislators may think they have cracked the code on how to implement legalization “safely,” but it will not be long until industry forces expose and exploit any openings they see, for the sake of profits.
The role of Big Tobacco
In other words, commercial marijuana behaves just like another large American industry peddling addiction—Big Tobacco. It may surprise Vermonters to know that the large tobacco companies have been studying the marijuana business since the 1960s, seeing it as a natural extension of their product line. And like tobacco, the marijuana business can only profit when it creates and cultivates heavy users. Just 20 percent of pot users consume 80 percent of all marijuana. Those heavy users, many of whom are addicts, are the target market for the pot industry, not the casual smoker.
MJ use up
This profit motive is why legalization and commercialization has yielded more pot use, not less, among children and adults. After legalizing pot, Colorado took the dubious honor of having the highest past-month marijuana use rates in the country in both age groups. A host of related problems have accompanied this dubious honor, including a surge in marijuana poisonings—up 148 percent overall, and up a shocking 153 percent among children 0 to 5 years old—and a 32 percent spike in marijuana-related traffic fatalities. Even without legalization, Vermont already ranks No. 2 in past-month consumption. Commercialization will only push those numbers higher.
Black market thriving
Moreover, legalization has not blunted Colorado’s black market. The state’s attorney general told the press last February that “The criminals are still selling on the black market. . . . We have plenty of cartel activity in Colorado. . . .” Colorado law enforcement officers have even indicated that black market activity may have increased, as people illegally export pot to other states.
Victimizes low-income users
Finally, like the tobacco companies, who once boasted that they targeted “the young, the poor, the black, and the stupid,” the marijuana industry has had an outsized impact on poor and minority communities in Colorado. A recent exposé showed that Denver’s pot business was highly skewed towards poor areas, with one neighborhood having one marijuana business for every 47 residents. A strategy of “profits before public health” is not the way to serve socioeconomic and racial justice.
Now, I put the call out to the Vermont Legislature: Please learn from the experiences of other states, and heed the warning signs—marijuana legalization does not reduce the toll drug addiction takes on our communities. It represents burning down the village in order to save it, by handing Vermont’s public health over to Wall Street and the marijuana lobby.
Rather, I urge you to focus on solutions we know will work—sensible criminal justice reform and serious investments in drug prevention.
Patrick J. Kennedy is a former member of Congress from Rhode Island and an honorary adviser to SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana.