By Julia Purdy
What if Vermont legalized fun-time marijuana? The 196-page report from the RAND Corporation, commissioned by Governor Peter Shumlin, addresses that question in mind-boggling detail, but with no guarantees and many caveats that are beyond Vermont’s control. The moral issue of whether government should profit from a powerful, mind-altering drug is beyond the scope of the report, which can be accessed at www.rand.org.
Headlines have plucked the seductive figure of $75 million in tax revenues out of the report. The report sums up Vermont’s potential “take” from a marijuana industry this way: “If Vermont legalized marijuana in a way that eliminated the black market and no other nearby state followed suit, then Vermont might, in theory, be able to generate $20 million to $75 million in tax revenues annually on sales to Vermont residents….”
What does that mean?
If Vermont pioneered legal marijuana in New England with no other competition, the state could theoretically make a bundle. The marijuana industry is profit-driven—the fact that also drives the state’s interest in pursuing it. And since profits must always stay ahead of taxation, tax evasion, the black market and criminal activity can be expected. “We created Prop. 215 so that patients would not have to deal with black market profiteers. But today it is all about the money,” wrote Rev. Scott Imler, co-founder of California’s medical marijuana law, in Alternatives Magazine (Fall, 2006). “Most of the dispensaries operating in California are little more than dope dealers with store fronts.”
A marijuana Mecca?
Here we also learn that “. . . There are more than 1 million U.S. current (past-month) marijuana users within a two-hour drive of Vermont and 5 million within 500 miles . . . so an influx of tourists can be expected immediately after stores open… Visitors from surrounding states and Canada present an opportunity in terms of tax and fee revenue from marijuana sales and complementary goods but a potentially very large burden in terms of public nuisance, traffic safety, and enforcement costs.”
Sound too good to be true? The Rand report is silent about the collateral damage to the surrounding states, nor does it offer the warning that said states might object to such goings-on in their backyards. They could face pressure to follow suit.
This very problem has formed the basis for Nebraska and Oklahoma v. Colorado, a lawsuit filed in December 2014 directly with the U.S. Supreme Court. The lawsuit alleges that Colorado, by independently enacting legalization, is creating a cross-border nuisance. It asserts that marijuana contraband is spreading to the plaintiff states and resulting in injury to them by “draining their treasuries, and placing stress on their criminal justice systems” (Nebraska and Oklahoma v. Colorado 2014).
Pro-legalization supporters retort that Nebraska and Oklahoma should just stop arresting people. But the issue runs deeper.
“Cross-border nuisance”: an old problem revived
There are legal precedents. Cross-border nuisance was addressed in a 1907 lawsuit, Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Company, in which Georgia sued to force the state of Tennessee to shut down a smelter that was sending toxic fumes into Georgia, endangering the health of Georgia residents. The issue was—and is—that while states enjoy sovereignty as to activities within their borders, they are prohibited by the Constitution from subjecting their neighbors to harmful and uncompensated effects of those activities. Since the dissemination of marijuana out of Colorado involves a dispute between the states, who enjoy equal sovereignty but are prohibited from entering into separate agreements with each other, the case is allowed to go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In their article “Fear and Loathing in Colorado…” (December 2014) Chad DeVeaux and Anne Mostad-Jensen point out that while the Clean Air and Clean Water acts have replaced the role of the Court in adjudicating environmental violations, “Colorado’s introduction of recreational marijuana into the stream of interstate commerce has reawakened this long-dormant body of constitutional law.”
If Vermont were to become a marijuana state, it could put Vermont in the same jam. It would be extremely naive to assume that cannabis products would not leave Vermont as contraband in luggage or in private vehicles. The contraband would in turn feed the black markets of our neighbor states, burdening their law enforcement, courts, and medical services.
Legalization proponents may scoff and the Rand report is silent on this issue. But smuggling is inevitable. Soon after legalization in 2012, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., described the routine interception of the drug, stuffed into trunks and pickup trucks, often hundreds of pounds in one bust, at the Idaho border. Idaho State Police reported that the majority of the drug seizures were on the eastbound lanes of Interstate 90—which leads to many large cities, including Chicago and Boston.
Do we know what we are inviting in?
Visitors to Vermont annually spend around $1.4 billion here, according to the Vermont Dept. of Commerce and Community Development, which promotes tourism. What will be the damage to local economies if “straight” tourists and business travelers shy away? Some in Breckenridge, Colo., are trying desperately to ward off a dispensary downtown as they are afraid it will deter families from the area.
All state laws so far prohibit public use of marijuana and driving while stoned. Will chefs and restaurants feature cannabis-laced “foods” on their menus? In Colorado there are festivals with marijuana-infused food and drinks. The possibilities are seemingly limitless.
In the worst case scenario, the term “tourism” becomes a euphemism for a regional smuggling operation, of which Vermont would be the epicenter. Not a exactly good-neighbor policy.
Vermont has a reputation of being progressive and independent (it’s even allowable to skinny-dip, although of course there is no money in that); however, when it comes to the health and safety of our residents and those in neighboring states, we should not be blinded by the carrot of potential revenue without weighing other societal costs, many of which will likely offset some of the hoped-for gains.