Editor’s note: This commentary is by Linda Mulley, an autism educator who has taught at University of Vermont, Dartmouth College and the Vermont Higher Education Collaborative; she is the co-author of All Children Matter (White River Press, 2014). She has lived in the Upper Valley for 40 years.
With the first anniversary of my 38-year-old daughter’s death from substance abuse just past, I find myself stunned by Vermont’s serious consideration of a bill to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. Having followed this discussion now for many months and addressing it as I’ve been able with state and federal senators (including supporter Bernie Sanders), our local representatives, and the governor, I’ve received disappointingly few responses. Comments on the Internet to my objections to legalization have been vitriolic, and I long ago stopped engaging in this way. There clearly is a very vocal base of support for this measure although it is far less clear how representative that base really is.
There has much discussion regarding pros and cons of legalizing marijuana over the past months. However, as a parent whose child died from the disease of addiction, I feel I have to try again to share my daughter’s personal experience with this drug. From her journals, there is no question that marijuana was her first drug of choice and that she was “psychologically” addicted to it – she first encountered it in high school and continued smoking it until she died. From her birth parents, she inherited genes that predisposed her to addiction, and smoking weed was definitely her gateway into far more destructive and, in her case, lethal drug and alcohol behavior.
I am also the mother of an 18-year-old son who has suffered greatly from the loss of his sister. I fear for him and his friends (and all teens and young adults in Vermont and other states who will come here to purchase it) should this bill pass. The message to kids of all ages will be one of general acceptance by our community and this will surely have a psychological effect on them. Although we know that kids can and do find sources for the drug, they will surely have much easier access than they have now. The coupling of those two elements – OK to do, let’s go get some or get someone to get us some – feels ominous to me and I hope it may to you as well.
It seems illogical to me that as part of that approach, we would actually legitimize a drug whose effects are poorly studied and for which little data exists to prove that legalization is not harmful, especially to our youth.
Let’s do acknowledge that the marijuana available these days barely resembles the tame weed people smoked in their youth. It’s now become a highly potent drug that can impair judgment and disinhibit minds that are not fully developed until their early 20s. Having met many parents (in person and online) whose children have died from substance abuse, very few do not include marijuana in the inexorable march toward experimenting with and using more dangerous substances. In describing their experiences and my daughter’s addictive pattern, I am not suggesting that every person who uses marijuana will become an addict. Simply, that some surely will, and already, for those people, there are long waiting lists, limited resources, and inadequate treatment options available to them.
Few people disagree that new approaches are needed to help solve the drug problem in our country and state. I am very familiar with the pro arguments – tax revenues, regulation, etc. and, were those revenues really used for education and treatment, some benefit could accrue. However, it seems illogical to me that as part of that approach, we would actually legitimize a drug whose effects are poorly studied and for which little data exists to prove that legalization is not harmful, especially to our youth. In fact, as data comes in from Colorado, real problems are now associated with broad-scale legalization. And I think it does matter that most drug enforcement professionals in our state are not in favor of legalization – so why are we not listening to them? They are concerned about drivers – young and old – under the influence of a drug that is known to impair judgment and reflexes. And without a clear standard or reliable test that can accurately evaluate how impaired or intoxicated a drugged driver is, we are all at risk.
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It is important to remember that there is a big difference between decriminalizing and legalizing. Clearly, a person who can benefit medically from marijuana in any form should have easy and sanctioned access to it. And should people be imprisoned for growing or having a small amount of pot in their possession? Definitely not. But it’s a huge leap from making it not a criminal act to possess certain amounts to actually making the drug available legally to the population as a whole.
Those who support waiting for more data from states that have taken this bold step are, in my opinion, both tempered and wise. Why must Vermont take the lead on this issue? I have lived in this state since 1968 and have been proud of its legacy. But I feel no pride in our stand on this issue, and, if you feel similarly, I urge you to contact your House legislators soon and ask that they consider carefully all of the issues before casting a yea vote for this bill. If no other argument comes to mind, we can all simply ask them: “What’s the rush?”