Will Burlington voters get an opportunity to weigh in on legalization of cannabis and hemp? On Sept. 10 the Burlington City Council is expected to decide whether to approve an advisory referendum proposal introduced by first-term Progressive Max Tracy.
Another Progressive City Council member Emma Mulvaney-Stanak proposed the exact same proposal two years ago. The ballot proposal was defeated in a council vote.
Tracy says in the interim the public — and members of the City Council — have become more receptive to the idea of legalizing pot.
“This is an interesting moment,” Tracy mused at a press conference in front of City Hall this week to announce the resolution. “The social stigma is eroding.”
A February 2012 Public Policy poll found strong support in Vermont for decriminalization. Almost two-thirds backed a reduction of the penalty for possession of an ounce or less of pot to $150 with no jail time, and 74 percent said marijuana is at least as safe as alcohol.
Tracy says he has the backing of the two other Progressives on the City Council and his co-sponsors include Democrats Norm Blais and Ed Adrian. Republican Paul Decelles is also “willing to give it a full hearing,” Tracy said.
“I’m not writing anyone off, and I appreciate the seriousness with which this is being addressed,” Tracy said.
The proposed referendum is mainly symbolic, and the City Council is not being asked to vote on the merits of legalization.
The question to local voters on Nov. 6 would be simple: “Shall the people of Burlington support the legalization, regulation, and taxation of all cannabis and hemp products?”
Montpelier passed a similar question with a 3-to-1 margin in March 2010.
The current push for a legalization referendum in Burlington is due largely to the efforts of BTVGreen, an advocacy group that has placed a large ad in Seven Days this week to bring out supporters for the City Council meeting on Monday. The ad says “prohibition is a war against the 99%” and argues that legalization of cannabis and hemp will create jobs, free up revenue wasted on the “drug war” to meet other pressing needs, and begin a transition to “a renewable and sustainable source of food, fuel and product material instead of relying on oil-based, climate damaging non-renewables.”
Albert Petrarca, a surgical intensive care nurse at Fletcher Allen Hospital and BTVGreen leader, says the council’s approval of the referendum comes down to whether the members support participatory democracy. “Are they (councilors) willing to vote yes to let the people to decide whether to cast a vote to end prohibition?”
Reform in progress
Considering the state’s liberal image Vermont’s marijuana laws are fairly stiff. First-time offenders are eligible for sentence deferral, but those caught a second time can get two years in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.
Vermont law is currently a jail term of up to six months and a fine of up to $500 for the first offense.
Between 2003 and 2007, the arrest in Vermont rate rose 4 percent, according to a study by Jon Gettman, an author and former head of National Organization of the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The rate of previous month marijuana use also went up.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Vermont since 2004, but only for those with illnesses such as cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis who sign up for the state’s registry. Patients can grow their own marijuana; those who cannot still must make illegal purchases.
A state medical marijuana registry was also established, but its website includes the public disclaimer that it “is neither a source for marijuana nor can the Registry provide information to patients on how to obtain marijuana.” By early 2012, without any dispensaries in place, 411 patients had signed up.
In 2011, with Shumlin’s backing, legislation authorized up to four medical marijuana dispensaries. A panel reviewed applications for dispensary operators this summer and is expected to announce the winners soon.
Election wrinkles and safety concerns
For supporters of reform, a positive November outcome for the Burlington legalization vote would be a symbolic statement setting the stage for legislative action and, according to Petrarca, potentially more local votes on Town Meeting Day next March. However, before that happens it could become an issue in the governor’s race.
In an August email, Republican candidate Randy Brock claimed that Shumlin plans to make decriminalization “one of his top priorities.” Brock opposed the medical marijuana bill in 2010.
NORML gave Shumlin $2,000 after the governor asked for a $6,000 donation.
Brock was outraged by the governor’s request.
“It’s kind of astounding to me that the governor would go out and approach NORML in order to get money from an organization whose end goal is to legalize marijuana — not just decriminalize it. I just find it very inappropriate,” Brock told VTDigger last month.
If elected, Brock pledges to veto any effort to reduce marijuana penalties. Shumlin has promised to support decriminalization of small amounts.
The Marijuana Policy Project has distributed electronic surveys to all candidates for the Vermont House and Senate, asking three questions; whether they support Vermont’s medical marijuana laws, would they eliminate the current 1,000 cap on the number of patients who can use dispensaries, and do they want to replace criminal penalties with civil fines, drug education and community services.
In addition to signaling his agreement on all three issues, Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe commented, “I strongly supported the creation of dispensaries in the Vermont Senate, though ultimately we should be moving toward a legal system of purchasing for all citizens, whatever their health status.”
Ashe also recounted his own efforts on the City Council. In 2008, he also pushed for a ballot question designed to assess “public support for decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana. That effort, amazingly, failed to earn the eight votes needed to put it on the ballot,” Ashe wrote. “It is my belief that the Vermont Senate will now be the venue to decriminalize marijuana possession and I will be a sponsor of that legislation.”
David Zuckerman, a Progressive state representative who won a spot on the Democratic state Senate ticket in August, supports legalization and regulated use, with a tax used mainly for drug addiction support services and enforcement. “It would also allow us to move towards health awareness and treatment for those few who have psychological addictions to marijuana and physical addictions to more serious drugs,” he commented in his response to the survey.
“We need to treat many of these issues under the auspices of the health department, more so than law enforcement issues,” Zuckerman added. “In general, if we can allow our law enforcement to focus on the more serious drugs, then I think we will see better results with respects to the safety in our communities.”
Like Tracy, Ashe and Zuckerman, who moved from Burlington to Hinesburg in 2009, know from experience that winning eight votes on the Burlington City Council can be almost as difficult as getting a bill out of committee in the state Legislature. Tracy still has to persuade at least three more members before the voting public gets its chance to voice an opinion.
One of the differences that could prove problematic this time, Tracy noted, is that a large number of council members have young children. “Parents want to send the right message,” he said. “This is a chance to have that conversation.”