Courts & Corrections

Windham County sheriff recommends marijuana legalization

Keith Clark
Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark testifies before lawmakers. Mike Faher/VTDigger

Editor’s note: This story by Robert Audette was published by the Brattleboro Reformer on Thursday, Jan. 21.

During a hearing before the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark came out in support of the legalization of marijuana.

“By eliminating the prohibition on marijuana and the need to utilize funding for enforcing a failed policy, we as a state can focus on what is important,” said Clark, reading from a prepared statement. “We will have more resources and can focus on those whom are addicted to any substance, whether it is heroin, alcohol or marijuana. We can also put our efforts into educating our children in a more realistic way. Furthermore, we can be more effective in keeping our highways safe for all users.”

Clark recommended the state legalize marijuana no earlier than July 2018 to give Vermont law enforcement officers the time for training and to develop programming, procedures and education policies.

“Furthermore, it provides time for government agencies, public, private and nonprofit companies to develop and vet policies as they relate to work environment and employment conditions,” he said.

By pushing the date out to 2018 it gives municipalities the chance to develop policies related to retail sales and cultivation of marijuana, according to Clark.

“Towns and cities should have the ability to locally control places and times of sale as well as public use,” he said. “This would be consistent with liquor laws wherein towns have a local liquor control board and the ability to have ordinances about open containers and public consumption.”

Clark said moving from policies of prohibition to a “more controlled and regulated system” has its challenges.

“Not unlike Vermont’s change to allow gay marriage, there will be those who believe the change will only result in catastrophic outcomes,” he said. “When Vermont takes the bold step to legalize marijuana, I will be as proud as I was on the day I walked my daughter down the aisle when she married her wife.”

In his prepared remarks, Clark noted a conversation he had with a second-in-command of a small police department in Colorado, a state that has legalized marijuana.

“He said his officers and others in the area are making more DUI drug arrests,” Clark said. “He did not believe there was an increase in the number of people using marijuana and driving, but the officers were now more focused and had received better training on the operator’s ability to operate safely. According to him, he anticipated many problems associated with the legalization, but to date they have not materialized.”

S.95, “An act relating to regulation and taxation of marijuana,” and S.241, “An act relating to personal possession and cultivation of cannabis and the regulation of commercial cannabis establishments,” were up for discussion before the committee all this week.

Clark, with more than 25 years of law enforcement experience, came out in support of S.95, which would eliminate the prohibition of marijuana and make it legal for personal use by adults over the age of 21.

“The so-called War on Drugs has not made our communities and highways safer,” testified Clark. “In many ways, prohibition has created a system that has caused more harm than good.”

Clark said that approximately 80,000 Vermont residents use marijuana in a given month, adding that prohibition does nothing more than make criminals out of law-abiding citizens. Clark also noted that prohibition has created an illicit market in which dealers can take advantage of their clients and also allows “unscrupulous dealers to sell to children.”

“By legalizing marijuana, the state and local governments will have control of the market … and we will have the support of licensed cultivators and sellers in keeping the black market dealers out of the state and away from our children.”

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell said he has great respect for Clark and his position, “The substance and sincerity of his statement to the Judiciary Committee being among them. I have stated my belief that marijuana will eventually be legalized in Vermont and my hope that a reasoned regulatory structure will be established to responsibly allow for its legal possession and use.”

Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald told the Reformer that while he is not in favor of legalization, if the Legislature does decide to do so, he hopes it takes a long-term, measured approach before ending prohibition.

“They should have the discussion now, talk to some of the states that have legalized,” said Fitzgerald. “This is going to take years. We are not going to get good data in just a year.”

He said he did not agree with Clark’s July 2018 recommendation. “While we may want to talk about legalizing marijuana, we need at least 10 years of data and research before the Legislature can come to a well-rounded, thought-out conclusion on how this is going to impact our community. Don’t make it legal first and then try to figure out how to deal with it after.”

Fitzgerald also said while he respects Clark’s experience as a police officer, he disagrees with his position.

Debby Haskins, the executive director of the Vermont branch of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization, also gave testimony to the committee. “There was a lot of great testimony from both sides. But I believe it is the wrong thing to do for all Vermonters.”

SAM-VT is asking the Legislature to consider the mental health affects of marijuana addiction, as well as the effects on Vermont’s more vulnerable populations. Haskins also mentioned there are many factors that need to be considered, such as banking, advertising and home growers versus commercial growers. But most importantly, she said, the state has to consider the impacts marijuana abuse has on families, individuals and communities.

“I understand that many people can use marijuana and alcohol and it’s not a problem,” she said. “But there are plenty of people who use marijuana who are addicted or have mental health issues. Their families and their communities are impacted. Legalizing marijuana is not going to make us a healthier state, it’s not going to make our kids healthier or safer and it’s not going to make parents better parents.”

Haskins, like Fitzgerald, encouraged the Legislature to take a go-slow approach and watch how legalization plays out in Washington and Oregon.

Dr. Nels Closter, who operates Hawthorne Recovery in Bennington and Habit OPCO, the methadone clinic in Brattleboro, also testified on Thursday.

“I suggested the Legislature consider the sacrifices against the benefits,” said Kloster, with a focus on the difference between those who abuse marijuana and those who just use it. “About 20 percent of those who use marijuana are dependent or addicted. They account for two-thirds of the use days and about 80 percent of the marijuana that is consumed. Legalization is for the benefit of those who have controlled usage and not for those who abuse. The harm to the abusers is greater than the pleasure for controlled users.”

Kloster also believes the state should take a go-slow approach to legalization.

“Research takes time,” he said. “We need a broad spectrum to make better decisions and make sure the resources are in place if we do make it legal. There needs to be a really thorough process around it.”

Cassandra Holloway, the director of the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition, expressed great concern about marijuana legalization. “Our children are hearing that marijuana use is safe, healthy and fun for them to use and this perception will lead to increased youth use. There is not enough effective funding currently for preventing and regulating tobacco and alcohol and here we are considering another drug to legalize.”

Holloway pointed out that marijuana addiction is the No. 1 reason youth are going into treatment today and the state doesn’t have enough resources to address it now.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has come out in support of legalization, but with five caveats: the right bill should keep marijuana out of the hands of minors; keep taxes low enough to lure people out of the black market; fund prevention programs; devise stronger laws against driving under the influence; and exclude the sale of marijuana edibles until the state has a chance to conduct more research in an effort to strap the appropriate regulations to these types of products.

These guidelines are in agreement with those proposed by Windham County Senator Jeanette White, who is the sponsor of S. 241. White said the hearings have been going well in Montpelier, but she bristles when people mention recreational use. “Most Vermonters have made a reasoned decision on how we should regulate adult use of marijuana and most are in favor of it.”

She also said the people who are advising a go-slow approach will never be satisfied with studies.

“For those people, there will never be enough data,” she said.

She also noted that in Colorado, legalization was forced upon the policy makers by a referendum, while in Vermont, legislators are taking the lead. “In Colorado, they had to figure out how to implement legalization. In Vermont we are doing it the opposite way.”

While increasing tax revenues are a good thing for the Green Mountain State, said White, legalization for adult use would take the criminality out of its use.

“People who smoke or grow marijuana want to become law-abiding citizens.”

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.

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  • The debate regarding ending cannabis prohibition has been going on for decades. How much longer do we want to see folks facing legal sanctions for smoking some pot in the privacy of their lives? How much longer do we want to see medicinal marijuana relegated to only the most dire end of life diseases? How much longer do we want to see industrial hemp be kept out of our farmers’ basket of marketable goods?

    The time for foot dragging was ten years ago. The time to move ahead is right now.

    • Paul O’Day

      Some people learn slower than others. Some learn really slowly. There is nothing inherently wrong per se with being intellectually slow, but there is something when one takes a position of authority and leadership and insists that everyone else reduces their life to the pace of the slowest person in the hierarchy.

      Those who oppose marijuana legalization, and those who advocate a “slow” approach, should resign as they are quite evidently not fast enough to keep up with modern times. Let the younger police officers and politically ambitious people who can use the latest technology, read and comprehend science, and pass and enforce intelligent regulations step up to the plate.

    • Neil Johnson

      And that’s why 40 + states still haven’t legalized it? Being the first on this is a huge mistake. All the articles being pumped out are one sided, it’s got to be 15 to 1.

      There is a middle road, but nobody seems to want that. It’ s all about setting up monopolies and making millions.

      • Sean Joyce

        The prohibition of cannabis has been based on 80+ years of perpetuated deceit that turned into a government cash cow and the majority of the American people and certainly the younger generations understand this. The reason it is so one sided is because the opposition needs to live with the moat of lies it has created. (See Heath-Tulane IQ study for perfect example)

        • Walter Carpenter

          “The prohibition of cannabis has been based on 80+ years of perpetuated deceit that turned into a government cash cow and the majority of the American people and certainly the younger generations understand this.”

          And it was made illegal for dubious reasons, like racism and greed, in the first place. We’ve been shoving people into our prisons for the last seventy-eight years for smoking pot based on these reasons. The idea of “going slow,” is ridiculous since we will be putting more and more of our citizens behind bars while we go slow. Maybe that is the purpose…

  • Sean Joyce

    Legalizing cannabis should not be used as an asset by any organization who has benefited greatly from its prohibition. Civil Asset Forfeiture has been law enforcement’s driving force for decades and in many states it doesn’t require a conviction to seize property. Policing for profit leads to militarization and divides society instead of being one of the binders of it. Let law enforcement get some of the windfall of the tax revenue but only after the schools and roads.

    • Sean Joyce

      Vermonters should be proud that the state has protections against policing for profit but nationwide this is not the norm. I think Vermont is going to model their states cannabis laws after a state, it should not be after Colorado but instead, they need look no further than Maine for common sense legislation that feeds the rural economy.

    • Jim Vires

      As I was reading the article it does appear the most vocal for continued prohibition through advocating a “slow approach” are those who reap a financial benefit. As you point out law enforcement does benefit from the policy of prohibition. As a person who formerly worked in the addiction treatment industry I can attest that treatment providers also use the prohibition against cannabis to encourage people to seek treatment for a drug problem after a legal intervention has occurred.

      • Sean Joyce

        Look into forced marijuana treatment centers in California and you will see where much of this “science” comes from and makes SAM nothing more than minions for Bain Capital which is heavily invested in CRC health.

    • “Civil Asset Forfeiture has been law enforcement’s driving force for decades and in many states it doesn’t require a conviction to seize property.”
      Besides lacking “due process” and other Constitutional protections, this was and still is one of the most abused law enforcement tactics in the so-called “war on drugs.” In these cases one is guilty until proven innocent!

  • Rick Veitch

    Advocates of cannabis legalization should carefully read both bills before the legislature and decide which to support.

    S.241 contains the Home Grown option of a 100 sq. foot outdoor plot for every Vermont household and the opportunity for small farms to cultivate cannabis on small and medium scales.

    S.95 allows Vermonters two budding plants grown in a secure indoor facility. Commercial cultivation licenses are reserved for a few large combines. Any Vermonter caught with more than two plants faces draconian fines and jail sentences.

    I believe the many tens of thousands of Vermonters who have been growing cannabis under threat of arrest and seizure for forty years will continue to do so under S.95 and that this bill is unworkable.

    If you believe in the true Vermont Way, please familiarize yourselves with both bills and support S.241 and the Home Grown option.

    • David White

      both bills pretty much suck. penalties increased, fines increased,

      • Rick Veitch

        S.241 specifies $100 penalty for growing over the 100 sq ft plot, second offense $200, third offense $500. If a Vermonter wants to grow more than 100 sq ft, they can buy a license for $1 a sq. foot. Seems pretty reasonable to me.

        S.241 does make a lot of noise over anyone under 21 being caught with cannabis, but offers a Diversion Program that will void the summons and complaint with no penalty due.

        S.95 specifies a $500 fine for first offense of growing more than two budding plants and imprisonment for 6 months on a second offense. Possession of 6 mature plants results in 5 years imprisonment and a $100,000 fine. Possessing 12 mature plants will send a Vermonter to prison for 15 years with a $500,000 fine.

        See the difference?

  • Stewart Skrill

    NO VICTIM NO CRIME! (Common Law)! Government should spend more time protecting our LIBERTY rather than figuring out ways how to take it away!

    • Neil Johnson

      Then I should be able to drive drunk too. So why can’t I?

      • David Tucker

        Are you the person who wants to start a new political party in this state? If so, you need to spend more time learning about the issues rather than making silly analogies that frankly are not flattering. It’s ok with me if you are against legalization, but try to do so in a serious manner, especially if you have thoughts of advancing your political career.
        In case you actually were serious, it is illegal to drive drunk because of the harm caused by motor vehicle accidents and the increase in the same that results from drinking and driving. Likewise, it should remain illegal to smoke and drive.

  • “The so-called War on Drugs has not made our communities and highways safer,” testified Clark. “In many ways, prohibition has created a system that has caused more harm than good.”
    Finally someone in law enforcement using logic instead of the same old false cliches, ad nauseam.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    The only issue that is not clear is how it could tested for in DUI cases. BUT, that is also an issue in distracted driving while texting. Cell phones have not been outlawed, even though there is plenty of evidence that texting while driving has killed many.

    The bottom line is: Which is more dangerous – pot or cell phones? Does it follow that if pot is illegal, cell phones should be too?

  • Rick Cowan

    As a Windham County resident, I’m proud of our sheriff for his having taken a thoughtful and enlightened position on this issue. Prohibition of this herb has failed miserably for 80 years. Testimony at Senate Judiciary Committee meetings has been overwhelmingly in favor. Study after study proves that cannabis is vastly less damaging to individuals and society than alcohol. To those who say VT “isn’t ready,” I ask, “Are Vermonters less intelligent or responsible than citizens of Colorado, Washington State, DC, Maine and Alaska?” And to those who say it’s a blue state thing, please explain how Alaska’s voters approved legalization?

  • Mike Ferzoco

    Those against legalization that recommend more studies or more time are just trying to buy time to stall legalization. Period. Stop splitting hairs and looking for fault. The time for legalization is now.