Student Researcher and Writer: Fiona Giguere
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams, PhD
Saint Michaels College
December 15, 2015
Until recently, the idea of legalizing cannabis seemed like nothing more than a commonly shared dream around a bong emitting thick smoke. This is the case no longer. Since Colorado and Washington decided to legalize cannabis in 2012, the benefits of legalization are becoming clear to other states. In 2016, Vermont may become the fifth state to legalize cannabis. The legalization of cannabis remains a tough decision because of the information and misinformation surrounding the sticky plant. However, Vermonters can look at other states to weigh the pros and cons of legalizing cannabis.
The objections over legalization of cannabis have been repeated for a century. Objection one: People believe that legalizing cannabis will lead to a higher crime rate and more violence in the state. In Washington and Colorado the crime rate has actually decreased since the legalization of cannabis. According to statistics compiled by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the rate of violent crime fell 2.2% in Colorado, burglaries in Colorado’s capital, Denver, decreased by 9.5% and overall property crime in Denver decreased by 8.9% in the first eleven months after legalization. Matt Simon, a Legislative Analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project explained “what we’re talking about here is a policy failure similar to the failure of Alcohol Prohibition. The U.S. didn’t end Alcohol Prohibition because it determined that alcohol was “harmless,” but because it became well-understood that Prohibition had dramatically enriched and empowered organized crime.”
Objection two: It will make the drug more accessible to children and teens. Vermont State Senator Jeanette White took this claim directly to a group of teens. She asked them whether it was easier for them to obtain marijuana or alcohol. They all agreed that “it’s much easier to get marijuana than alcohol, because if you want to get alcohol, its regulated, it’s controlled, you have to find somebody over 21 to buy it for you, you don’t have to do that with marijuana. You can go in the bathroom at the high school and buy it from somebody.” The teen’s claim is not conjecture, the Vermont Department of Health declared that “compared to other states, Vermont has the highest prevalence of past 30 day marijuana use among 12-to-17-year-olds,” even higher than the states where cannabis is legalized.
Objection three: There is no way to regulate individuals driving under the influence of cannabis. Some Vermonters believe that the state should hold off on legalization until the technology exists to test people under the influence. However, 2014 statistics by the Vermont State Police demonstrate that of the 44 traffic fatalities in Vermont, only 9 involved drivers impaired by marijuana. Some doctors argue that treating marijuana impairment like alcohol is a mistake. The two are very different and law enforcement would be making a mistake if they detected and assessed marijuana like alcohol.
Objection four: Voters do not know enough about cannabis. Margo Austin, a Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) representative, believes that, “it is going to take five to ten years to really have some good data to be able to move forward with policy here in Vermont.” Austin asks “Why the rush? The cost is too high, I know Vermonters care about health and safety and that if we don’t have all the science and all the research that we need to make good policy decisions, what is the rush?” Matt Simon sees Austin’s data request as a stall tactic. He argues that “Prohibition hasn’t worked, and we could achieve much better results via regulation…People are going to consume marijuana whether policymakers like it or not. Therefore, our choices from a public policy perspective are not ‘marijuana vs. no marijuana,’ they are ‘prohibition vs. regulation.’ I argue that prohibition causes far more problems than it solves, and that it’s time for a new approach.”
There are numerous positives for Vermont if marijuana is legalized. Laura Subin, the director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana (VCRM) argues that legalization will lead to a decrease in the incarceration of many nonviolent offenders. She explains that “when marijuana is legalized it generally leads to a decrease in the more dangerous alcohol use. A Rand Corporation Report claimed that if marijuana use doubled but alcohol use reduced by 10% that that would actually be a win for public health.” Besides a reduction in prisoners and potential improvements to public health, the state economy could benefit from the legalization of marijuana. Alan Newman, a member of the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative, claimed that marijuana legalization could help improve economic conditions for struggling farmers. He claims “I have seen reputable estimates that legalization of cannabis could help create 3,000-5,000 ancillary jobs in the state.”
The people of Vermont have a tough decision to make in 2016 given the information and misinformation about cannabis legalization. Money and safety will tug at voter’s hearts as they head to the polls to decide if the Green Mountain State will legalize mountains of green for its citizens.
Fiona Giguere is a second year media student at Saint Michael’s College, born and raised in the Green Mountain State of Vermont.