Editor’s note: This commentary is by Chloé White, who is the policy director at the ACLU of Vermont.
The Vermont Legislature recently took an important step towards badly needed drug reform in Vermont. S.22 permits adults over 21 to possess and cultivate small amounts of marijuana and creates a marijuana regulatory commission to review a potential framework for taxation and regulation. The bill’s fate now rests with Gov. Phil Scott.
Vermonters heavily favor marijuana legalization: Recent polls show that a majority of Vermonters support legalizing marijuana and regulating it like alcohol. They recognize that ending marijuana prohibition will help reduce criminal justice system costs, prevent collateral consequences of drug-related criminal records, mitigate the pronounced racial disparities in our criminal justice system, save taxpayer money, and better protect Vermonters’ health and rights.
Criminalizing marijuana possession has not worked. Though Vermont partially decriminalized in 2013, over 4,000 Vermonters have paid about $1 million in fines for possessing under an ounce of marijuana. People are still targeted by police, their bodies and their property searched based solely on suspicion of possessing marijuana. Arrest and prison are still possible for possessing more than one ounce or for cultivating.
Marijuana criminalization also disproportionately targets people of color. Before decriminalization, African-Americans in Vermont were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, though both groups use at the same rate. Vermont still has one of the nation’s highest racial disparities for drug possession arrests, with extreme racial disparities in its criminal justice system overall.
“Before decriminalization, African-Americans in Vermont were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, though both groups use at the same rate.”
Although legalization opponents have raised concerns about negative impacts on road safety and public health, the facts don’t match their hyperbolic rhetoric. There is no evidence that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” States that have legalized have not seen an uptick in traffic fatalities or other public health problems. In fact, recent studies show youth use rates have not increased and — critically for Vermont — that opiate use and fatalities are down where marijuana is legal.
After Vermont decriminalized marijuana in 2013, the same folks now opposing legalization insisted that use, sales and crime would increase — that did not happen. To the contrary, more people were kept out of jail and given the opportunity to access employment and housing without a negative mark on their record. The fact is, the public health and safety benefits of marijuana legalization are substantial, while many commonly repeated concerns are simply not borne out by the evidence.
Gov. Scott has said that Vermont should go slow, or wait until a marijuana-specific “drugged driving” test is invented. But here’s the good news: Vermont already has a tried and true roadside test for driving under the influence — the standard field sobriety test (stand on one foot, walk a line, etc.). Studies have proven the test’s accuracy and effectiveness. It has been used by Vermont officers for decades, and a growing number of officers now have intoxication recognition training and expertise.
Furthermore, the creation of a marijuana regulatory commission allows for precisely what Gov. Scott says he wants: a careful, considered and responsible approach to taxation and regulation. (For more information, the Legislature’s FAQ on S. 22 is available online.)
As the Trump administration doubles-down on failed War on Drugs policies, despite a bipartisan consensus favoring a public health-centered approach, S.22’s commonsense reforms are desperately needed. Gov. Scott has a valuable opportunity before him. For Vermonters who support ending the failed War on Drugs and want to see Vermont adopt a 21st century drug policy, now is the time to speak out.