Joe Benning: The marijuana debate

Editor’s note: This commentary is by state Sen. Joe Benning, a Republican who represents the Caledonia-Orange District in the Vermont Senate.

The marijuana legalization debate will challenge all of us to examine our own capacity for tolerance. For some the challenge will simply be too difficult because they fear an assault on familiarity. For others the challenge will be intolerable because they’ve never had that fear. But to most Vermonters, the challenge rests in our ability to rationally examine facts when deciding whether to effect change.

Should Vermont legalize the use of marijuana? I don’t smoke marijuana. Don’t care to. But as a kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I knew many people who did and some who still do. Their choice to indulge never bothered me. In fact, it taught me to be tolerant of another’s perceived foibles, a cornerstone of what it takes to be a member of a free society. There are people who do things they enjoy that just don’t make sense to me, but unless they are interfering with my ability to do the things I enjoy, I’ve never felt the need to demand they cease and desist. I like to think this is what America is all about. I especially like to think this is what Vermont is all about.

“Freedom” is not an abstract concept, relegated to ancient history books on a dusty shelf. It is the very tangible ability to think, to speak, to act and do without anyone saying I cannot, so long as my doing so does not interfere with my neighbor’s ability to do the same.


Despite seven decades of prohibition in the so-called War On Drugs, a sizable number of Vermonters use marijuana. A recently completed study (the Rand Report) indicates at least 80,000 of our fellow citizens are spending between $125 million and $225 million annually in an underground economy to enjoy their diversion. If that report is true (some say its numbers are on the low side) then any rational observer must conclude the untold billions we have spent hoping we would eliminate continued consumption has been wasted. We kid ourselves if we believe prohibition will eventually win the battle. I’d argue it is time to change our approach.

Vermont has the ability to have a civil discussion on legalization through its legislative process. We have the data, we have the history to understand what hasn’t worked and why, and we have a growing desire to take a measured approach to dealing with marijuana consumption in a “Vermont way.” We can do that if we eliminate emotion and passion from the discussion. We can do that if we acknowledge the fact that we have been penalizing otherwise law-abiding citizens for behavior that generally does not interfere with Vermonters’ ability to go about their daily lives.

Some would respond that there are costs to society with legalization due to those who might abuse this substance through youthful indiscretion or driving after imbibing. These are legitimate concerns, but they already exist now, so I would argue they are not a reason to continue a failed policy. We address those concerns through education and regulation, just like we do with the far more problematic substance called “alcohol.” A tax on what is now a substantial underground economy would provide the money necessary to greatly enhance those efforts.

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Some have asked, “What’s the rush?” To that I would say, “There is no better time than the present to restore a lost freedom.” “Freedom” is not an abstract concept, relegated to ancient history books on a dusty shelf. It is the very tangible ability to think, to speak, to act and do without anyone saying I cannot, so long as my doing so does not interfere with my neighbor’s ability to do the same. When Vermonters remember that, we’ll recognize it is time to end the failed policy of prohibition by legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana consumption.


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