Cannabis and hemp legalization being considered for Burlington advisory vote

Max Tracy. Photo by Greg Guma.

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.

Read the study.

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.”

Greg Guma

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  • malcolm kyle

    We shall smoke to the end; we shall smoke in our homes; we shall smoke on the seas and oceans, and we shall smoke, with growing confidence, and growing strength—in the air; we shall defend God’s gift whatever the cost may be; we shall smoke on the beaches; we shall smoke on collage grounds; we shall smoke in the fields and in the streets; we shall smoke in the hills. We shall never surrender our stash! and, even if, which I do not for a moment believe, we were to remain subjugated and persecuted by these evil corporations, then our enlightened friends beyond the seas would carry on the struggle, until in God’s good time, the New World, with all its re-discovered hemp based power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old. – Winstone Hempchill

  • Alex Barnham

    Yes, we shall smoke until we get lung cancer and then you can pay for our medical care.

  • As one of the two sponsors of a decriminalization bill in the State Senate this past session (Senator Philip Baruth being the other), I applaud the Burlington City Council for even taking up the issue.

    I’m a Republican and Philip is a Democrat. We demonstrated that decriminalization isn’t a party issue; it is a Vermont issue. There are members of all three major parties who understand this. Although we may have different reasons for bringing the issue to the table, we are united in our understanding that this makes sense for Vermont. It might also lead to a long-overdue and smarter discussion of the subject at the federal level.

    So Tim Ashe, David Zuckerman and Philip Baruth, should we all get elected/re-elected, let’s work together to change how Vermont deals with this issue. And to Max Tracey, best of luck with the discussion. I believe you are quite correct that a positive vote in Burlington would send a strong message to our colleagues in the legislature.

  • Alex Barnham

    Isn’t it wonderful that we have finally fallen for the line, hook and sinker of Big Tobacco and found another venue for them to kill us with smoke. At a time when we are trying to eliminate the smoke in our environment, there will be another way to invade our air space with carcinogenic volatiles. Especially for people who do not want to “get high”, we will now have to run for cover before we start drooling.

    • Cannabis smoke has been proven to not only NOT be carcinogenic, it has been shown in studies to actually reduce the size of Lung Cancer Tumors. Perhaps you need to do a bit more research since you seem to be quite uninformed.

  • Tom Kauffmann

    Certainly, there may be folks who might be able to use marijuana responsibly, just as there are folks who can take a drink now and then with no detrimental effects. However, what about the rest?

    “74 percent say Marijuana is at least as safe as alcohol.”

    Alcohol is directly responsible for 75,000 deaths a year, more than were killed during the entire Vietnam conflict.

    To put that number in perspective, think of a Boeing 747 crashing every two days all year long.

    And even if a person uses marijuana responsibly, research has shown that any form of smoking causes COPD, as well as cancer and heart disease. If we encourage more folks to smoke through the legalization of marijuana, just wait and see what happens to our already outrageous health-care costs.

    Additionally, according to the American Psychological Association, the use of marijuana may be connected with anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, and addiction. Do you really want to take a chance you, or your children, won’t be affected.

    In my opinion, as things stand right now, there are few, if any, benefits to the recreational use of marijuana and I believe the risks to our society far outweigh any potential benefits. To say that 99% of the population wants to legalize marijuana as BTVGreen suggests is ridiculous and as far as Mr. Zuckerman’s suggestion to tax it, well, since I could simply grow it in a room at my home, why would I buy it?

    • Cannabis is not alchohol. The effects are very different. Studies have proven that THC directly attacks cancerous lung tumors leading to the reduction in size of said tumors.

      No one has ever, in the 5000 or so years of humanity’s making use of this plant, died from an overdose.

      “Additionally, according to the American Psychological Association, the use of marijuana may be connected with anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, and addiction.”

      Did you notice the use of the word “MAY”? The reason for the choice of this word, is that no real studies about the effects of Cannabis have been done in this country by a body independent of the government. By statute, the DEA and FDA are required to actively campaign against any course of action that might lead to legalization.

      Here is another way to look at this. How about anti-depressants. There is no “may” when one talks about the links between this class of drugs and depression, anxiety and psychosis. There are definitive proven links. Does this mean the class of drugs, anti-depressants, should be banned wholesale? I am guessing the millions of people who make use of anti-depressants in the USA would not want to see the drug made unavailable because some small portion of the population might experience ill-effects.

      It seems like your statements are based on fear and a lack of knowledge. Perhaps you should dig a little deeper and do more research looking at a number of sources. Just a thought.

  • Paul Brooks

    I am a registered Medical Marijuana patient, here in Vermont. Many of us who use cannabis medicinally, as well as those who use it recreationally, know that smoking is not the only means of administration. Personally, I much prefer consuming it by mouth, as an edible. There are dozens of ways that can be accomplished, all with no impact upon the lungs, and no secondhand smoke. It has been used as a beverage, made with milk, in India, for centuries. If one does smoke it, the option exists to use what is known as a, vaporizer, which also produces a safe, clean, means of transmission. Probably the best thing about cannabis though, is its ability to actually safeguard the user from cancer, and as a growing number of tests are confirming, to actually reverse cancer growth. Naysayers, I find, are clueless when it comes to the facts. They parrot long held myths and stereotypical falsehoods. Do a little homework…please. There is a ton of information available on the Web.

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