Gregory Dennis: Toking, taxes and the new Vermont green

Editor’s note: This commentary piece is by Cornwall resident Gregory Dennis. It first appeared in the Addison Independent.

[R]eports commissioned by a state legislature are famous fodder for recycling bins.

But a recent report prepared for the Vermont Legislature promises to be widely read and debated. That’s because it’s about a topic with lots of buzz, in every sense of the word: should Vermont legalize marijuana?

We’ve already decriminalized possession of less than an ounce. Now Vermont is seriously debating whether to join four states and the District of Columbia by fully legalizing the wily weed.

It would give a whole new meaning to being green in Vermont.

How close are we to legalization? Gov. Peter Shumlin said recently that he “continues to support moves to legalize marijuana in Vermont” – adding that he has “always said that we have to proceed with rigorous research and preparation before deciding whether to act.”

I’ve long favored legalization, and polls indicate that a narrow majority of Americans now feel the same way.

Prohibition is a proven failure, and tens of millions of Americans enjoy the drug’s benefits and pleasures without ill effects.

In a section describing the case made by legalization advocates that pot would be a steady source of easy tax revenues, the authors write: “An optimist could hope that, by moving first, Vermont might cement a long-lived brand and reputation as the place from which to buy marijuana, akin to Vermont’s premium brands in coffee, cheese, or ice cream.”

Marijuana clearly does carry some risks, especially with overly frequent indulgence. But it’s far less dangerous than the booze that anybody over 20 can buy at a neighborhood store.

Moreover, the criminalization of marijuana has cost society hundreds of millions in unnecessary law enforcement and incarceration – not to mention the toll it has taken on the convicted and their families, especially among minorities.

But having spent a recent evening reading the RAND report prepared for the Legislature, I now believe that while Vermont should legalize marijuana, we shouldn’t be in a rush to do it.

The issue is far more complicated than it appears on the surface. For starters, when and how Vermont acts will have implications for state revenues, tourism, law enforcement and our youth.

We shouldn’t just assume that we can follow Colorado off to a free-market free-for-all and it will all work out great. There may be better ways to legalize.

The RAND report is, as the Legislature requested, admirably detailed and evenhanded, offering multiple viewpoints and policy alternatives. The analysts weren’t supposed to make specific policy recommendations, and they didn’t.

There are many uncertainties about what legalization would involve, and there are legitimate arguments on both sides. Given that, the report might as well have been titled, “If, On the Other Hand …”

The authors’ lexicon veers from discussion of regulatory capture to “reverse smurfing” and back again, from detention to dabbing.

It’s clear the authors labored to write in a style that was rigorous but not stuffy. You can almost hear them saying to themselves that they didn’t want to be mocked for warning of reefer madness. Nor did they want to seem like free-spirited hippies, either.

The report is full of easy headline material:

• We like to smoke weed. An estimated 60,000 to 100,000 Vermonters use the drug regularly – putting us well ahead of the national average. Vermonters spend somewhere between $125 million and $225 million a year on weed.

• Regular users in Vermont spend a whopping average of $1,800 a year on marijuana. That’s partly because as with gasoline, we pay more for pot.

• The state could raise an estimated $20 million to $70 million each year from legalization. That would go a long way toward plugging the current hole in the state budget, though it’s really anybody’s guess exactly how much state government could count on from tokers’ tax revenues.

• Decriminalizing possession of less than an ounce dropped the number of marijuana criminal charges in Vermont by 80 percent.

• Before taxes were imposed, “If marijuana were a fully legal product, produced the way tea is produced, a joint would cost just about what a teabag costs: pennies rather than dollars.”

The sober-minded analysts found themselves contemplating some unusual scenarios.

In a section describing the case made by legalization advocates that pot would be a steady source of easy tax revenues, the authors write: “An optimist could hope that, by moving first, Vermont might cement a long-lived brand and reputation as the place from which to buy marijuana, akin to Vermont’s premium brands in coffee, cheese, or ice cream.”

Just thinking about it gives me the munchies.

The report also says we can’t count on things unfolding as they have for Colorado. We can expect that legalization would be a much bigger deal here and bring many more people to Vermont. The population within 200 miles of our state is 40 times greater the number of people who actually live here, and the impact of marijuana tourism could be correspondingly much larger, too.

If Republicans win the presidency in 2016, all bets are off, the authors note. Obama administration policy makers have provided wary permission for states to legalize and tightly regulate pot. They’ve even given the banks a tentative green light to handle marijuana industry money. But a GOP president might just want to start waging war again on all federally illegal drugs.

A key strength of the report is its emphasis on encouraging us to think of potential legalization as more than a “binary choice.”

For starters, it’s not just “should we legalize or not.” We could just choose to drop enforcement of the existing anti-marijuana laws. And if we legalize pot, it doesn’t need to be under the “regulate it like alcohol” paradigm.

Legal drug purchases could, for example, be made through co-operatives or buying clubs – giving a whole new dimension to what we mean when we tell our friends we’re “going to the Middlebury co-op.”

I didn’t see anything in the RAND report to make me think that marijuana should remain illegal.

But I saw plenty to conclude that we should take our time legalizing it, and consider the many options outlined by the analysts.

In the meantime, it’s clear from the data that whatever the law books say, weed will continue to be rousingly popular in Vermont.


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