Some Vermont law enforcement officers were among the dissenters when the Legislature decriminalized marijuana last spring.
But next month, a law enforcement group is coming to the state to convince lawmakers and residents that the state is ready for the next step — legalization.
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), founded in 2002, has roughly 100,000 members internationally, many, but not all, of whom are current or former law enforcement officials. The nonprofit organization advocates for regulation and taxation of drugs, which is says will reduce crime, costs and other problems by undermining the black market.
Gov. Peter Shumlin said recently that he supports marijuana legalization in Vermont, but he’s “neither willing nor proposing” to do it during the upcoming legislative session.
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn backed the decriminalization law but has been more equivocal about his stance on legalization. Asked whether the Department of Public Safety supports legalization, he told Vermont Public Radio’s Jane Lindholm, “this is something we need to take a hard look at it.” Asked whether the department opposed legalization, Flynn responded, “We don’t know enough about it yet.”
Shumlin’s announcement came after the U.S. Justice Department issued a memo making clear that it would not interfere with state marijuana laws, for the time being, as long as proper regulatory structures are put in place.
Among lawmakers, even the most enthusiastic proponents of legalization have adopted a more patient approach.
“Typically in a biennium, you don’t tackle the same issue twice,” said Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, a longtime advocate for legalization.
Zuckerman points to Shumlin’s designation of legalization as a non-priority, and a number of other undertakings competing for the attention of the judiciary committees as reasons why he’s not banking on it happening in 2014.
But Zuckerman isn’t anticipating a long wait — he predicts legalization will pass within the next two years — and in the meantime, there’s work to be done and lawmakers to be swayed.
“I don’t think there are a lot of hurdles except for political patience,” Zuckerman said, but, “you’ve got to set the table before you have dinner.”
Pro-legalization groups, undeterred by calls for patience, appear to be doing just that. LEAP is bringing Richard Van Wickler, corrections superintendent for Cheshire County in New Hampshire, to speak at the Statehouse on Nov. 12. Zuckerman and two other lawmakers, Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, and Rep. Susan Davis, P-West Topsham, will also take part, but it was a private citizen who recruited the group to come.
“I very much appreciate what lawmakers have to do and I appreciate the difficult task before them and I understand they want to be careful with a reform of this magnitude,” Van Wickler said. But, even so, he plans to tell them that legalization is “the only solution.”
“One of things I’m going to point out,” Van Wickler said “is a decriminalized environment permits the illegal drug dealers to remain in business. They will continue to sell and you will continue to have gang war violence over the marketplace.”
The November event isn’t LEAP’s first ingress to the state, and it won’t be the last, according to Mike Smithson, LEAP’s speakers bureau director.
“We’ve been making a lot of forays into Vermont for the last few years and we’ve been getting more and more interest from legislators,” Smithson said, adding, “We do plan on coming back a lot.”
While the November event is public, Smithson said a large part of LEAP’s work involves quieter, one-to-one conversations with skeptical lawmakers. “We like to speak with legislators but we do it privately. We provide them cover until they are ready to come out to their constituents,” he said.
The group has also been visiting a number of civic groups — Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis clubs — around the state.
Smithson said the group did not invite law enforcement officials to the event, but that doesn’t mean it won’t reach out to them, too.
“It’s not like we are leaving them out,” he said. “The prohibition side [people against legalization] has pretty much owned the argument and we’ve never been invited to discuss our proposal at a public safety meeting. We neutralize the law enforcement that is opposed to drug reform.”
Van Wickler said that when he talks one-on-one with other members of the law enforcement community, they agree that legalization makes sense but back at their departments there’s a “pack mentality” that prevents them from speaking out.
“They are frightened about coming out and saying this is something that should be changed,” he said.
The Marijuana Policy Project, which lobbied for decriminalization in the state, has also honed in on Vermont and nine other states, where it will push for legalization by 2017.