On April 7, 2016

Marijuana legalization is not a “bold” or “courageous” move

By Dean Whitlock

Governor Shumlin has been parroting the Marijuana Policy Project’s emotionally charged polemics about prohibition, about being first, doing it right, having the courage. Let’s take a closer, calmer look.

Prohibition of alcohol failed politically because we cut off the country cold turkey, relied on jails, and failed to treat the national addiction. It did not fail from a public health standpoint: the illnesses, the family violence, the alcoholism rates all plummeted. Now what about marijuana?

Yes, 80,000 Vemonters report being regular users (at least monthly). That number is only about 12 percent of our total population, yet it includes every marijuana user from age 12 on up. Take out the teenagers and the number is closer to 10 percent. Under-age Vermonters will still be prohibited from using under any law we might pass, and no sensible person would do otherwise. How is that particular piece of prohibition going to stand up to legalization?

Contrary to what the governor keeps repeating, regulation will not lower marijuana use rates among youth. In Colorado, the 12-17-year-old use rate went up 20 percent in the first two years of legalization. Stores weren’t even open in the first year, and Colorado ran a failed million-dollar prevention program during the second year. Washington also saw a significant increase in youth use rates. We shouldn’t be surprised at this because alcohol–now our most popular legal drug–has always had a much higher use rate than marijuana.

S.241 would borrow money (much less than Colorado has spent) to establish a prevention program that wouldn’t be implemented until a year after legalization and only a year before stores opened. The problem is, prevention takes not only money, but time. Consider tobacco. In 1997, 36 percent of Vermont high-schoolers were using it; in 2015, the rate was down to 11 percent. With billions of dollars from the 1998 tobacco lawsuit, our nation vilified tobacco, but it still took 18 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in Vermont to drop our youth use rates by 25 percent.

What about marijuana? In 1997, 32 percent of Vermont high school students were using marijuana. In 2003, the rate was 25 percent–a healthy 7 percent decrease. In 2004, Vermont legalized medical marijuana. In 2005, the high-school use rate was still 25 percent. Today, the rate is 22 percent–11 years to drop only 3 percent.

Do you see the trend? Under “prohibition,” Vermont’s youth marijuana use rates were dropping at a steady pace. Under legalized medical marijuana, the decrease slowed to almost nothing.

Legalization of retail marijuana is not the solution. S.241, despite good intentions, is not different enough from what was tried in Colorado and Washington. Banning concentrates and home-growing merely continues those prohibitions and their sectors of the black market. Hiring more state troopers only meets the existing need to deal with the opiate epidemic. The prevention piece is too little too late. Nor do we want to be the first in our region, the only source for marijuana users from every bordering state and Canada.

Governor, that’s not “doing it right.”

We don’t need to rush. We have legal hemp and medical marijuana, and no one is going to jail for simple possession. We don’t need “the courage to do it,” we need the courage to stand against the tide of misinformation and political posturing while we wait to see what is truly right.

Dean Whitlock, of Thetford, is a freelance writer who has been researching the issues surrounding marijuana legalization for the past two-and-a-half years. A former supporter of legalization, he is now opposed. He is a member of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM-VT).

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