Vermont law enforcement express sense of betrayal over looming pot legalization

Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of our Vermont Voices Series.

A bill legalizing limited marijuana possession was passed by the Vermont Senate this week, after clearing the House the first week of the legislative session. The controversial bill, H.511, is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott, according to spokesperson Rebecca Kelley.

Vergennes Police Department

Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, president of the Vermont Police Association.

The Vermont law enforcement community has loudly opposed the legalization of recreational pot, and in recent weeks police leaders and drug experts have appeared at the Statehouse to caution legislators about the fallout of H.511 if it becomes law.

Among the outspoken police officials in the state is Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, president of the Vermont Police Association. The association, along with the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police and the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association, have cautioned state lawmakers to go slowly on the issue.

While Scott formed the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Marijuana in 2017 to help Vermont proceed with caution, top law enforcement officials say they are are feeling betrayed by the governor and lawmakers.

True North: What has been the reaction of police officials over what appears to be that recreational pot possession and use will be approved?

Merkel: None of us are happy with the state entertaining the legalization of marijuana. There are a number of concerns we have about legalization. Certainly the one that jumps out most is the highway safety consideration, especially in light of an uptick, unfortunately, in highway fatalities. A good proportion of these incidents involved drugs (including marijuana).

To assume that people are going to use marijuana responsibility is like assuming people are going to use alcohol responsibly. We’ve seen what happens and we’re seeing it all now, even before legalization. We see people driving (under the influence) with children in the car, and we see people using marijuana elsewhere, which is now pretty prevalent.

True North: Regarding your comment about highway safety, the highly publicized 2017 news report about multiple fatalities in Bridport, Vt., of carnival workers on their way to the Addison County Fair & Field Days, has been linked to a high level of the psychotropic drug tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana.

Merkel: Yes, when the Vermont State Police completed its toxicology report, there was a presence of marijuana. … When the same thing keeps cropping up, with the presence of any amount of drugs, it is not good. In a tragic situation like that (in Bridport), and when you see a large number of fatalities involved with drugs including marijuana, it’s bad — a real problem and concern. If you smoke marijuana, and then operate a motor vehicle, you’re a danger (to other motorists); there’s no two ways about it.

True North: As president of the Vermont Police Association, do you feel like Gov. Scott and legislators have been listening to the committee members and the rest of law enforcement community on this issue?

Merkel: Vermont legislators have not listened to us. It’s not just what law enforcement has presented in the argument. Experts on mental health, education and other citizens have testified with their concerns about the legalization of marijuana. They’ve heard all the terrible stories, independent reports, developmental risks and other warnings. They’ve all been paraded in front of the legislature. But it’s a matter of what they want to hear. … I don’t know why we even testified. They didn’t even listen to us. When we see something as dangerous as this, which presents a risk, we have an obligation to tell the people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. It’s obvious they did not want to hear what we had to say. … Once you open Pandora’s box, you can’t shut it.

RELATED: Law enforcement officials: Legalizing pot will be ‘like opening Pandora’s box’

True North: Why this rush to legalize recreational pot in Vermont? This means legalizing 1 ounce for personal use along with two mature plants for personal use.

Merkel: Well, two mature plants will yield (approximately) 8 ounces each per plant, plus the one ounce for personal use. How does this all make sense? What do you do with all this marijuana? The pro-marijuana people started, first, with a very narrow scope — the medical use of marijuana. Law enforcement doesn’t have a problem with limited use for people with long-term pain, et cetera, but then by allowing medical marijuana, which sounds benign, you’ve created a level of acceptance. First comes medical marijuana, then decriminalization, and now legalization for recreational use. … We saw the steps that were coming. This is the game plan of the pro-marijuana people. The next step will be to tax and regulate.

True North: What are law enforcement concerns about marijuana and young people? Do you consider it a “gateway drug” or is that now a passé term?

Merkel: I don’t know of a single heroin user who started out with heroin and I’ve talked with a lot of addicts. … Here in Addison County a large number of kids start out with cigarettes, marijuana, alcohol, then progress to pills, coke, or crack, and then go on to heroin. Of the 20 or so kids I knew who are no longer here, and who have gone down this path, they started out with marijuana and moved on.

True North: Pro-marijuana people argue that police have spent too much time enforcing marijuana laws and that’s a good reason for legalizing it. Also, that a lot of Vermonters are in jail over possessing trivial amounts of marijuana.

Merkel: Well, that’s a lie — it’s just not true. We’re not spending a lot of time enforcing marijuana laws now. If we happen to run across it, we do something about it. … And the allegation that all these people are in jail on marijuana offenses is also not true. If someone is in jail in Vermont (over this) it’s because they had a large amount or the marijuana (or) was tied-in with some other offense. If we run into someone trafficking heroin, they’re smoking marijuana without doing their own product. Marijuana is always on the periphery of the harder drug scene. That poses a big problem and we’re facing a huge problem with opiates and it’s not getting better. You have drug addiction, trafficking, and then the crime that goes along with it. So, we’re fighting the opium problem and now we’re legalizing marijuana? It makes no sense. Take away the marijuana laws and it prevents us from our ability to interdict those cars (transporting other drugs like heroin). Also, police canines have been trained on the odor of marijuana and now you we have to desensitize the dog? How do you think that’s going to end up in court?

True North: In a sense, you’re implying that when it comes to marijuana, the cautionary voice of law enforcement has been essentially betrayed by Vermont’s elected officials?

Merkel: The thing that bothers us the most is that we have been discounted during this whole debate about legalizing marijuana. Gov. Scott’s commission was established to provide guidance and answers, but now it seems to have been a waste of time — all this time and effort spent, a waste. What’s the sense of having the commission since its report was supposed to be released, I believe, by Jan. 15? Now the House and Senate have already ok’d the legalization bill (before reviewing the report). It’s really all about money to be made. That’s what’s really driving the marijuana-legalization train.

Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at lvinvt@gmx.com.

Images courtesy of city of Montpelier and Vergennes Police Department

41 thoughts on “Vermont law enforcement express sense of betrayal over looming pot legalization

  1. Lou,

    A great interview. Please send it to the Governor Scott, before it is too late.

    Willem

    It is completely outrageous for legislators passing such a controversial bill on a voice vote.
    If I were Scott, I would veto it just for that cowardly cop out.
    In any case, Scott should veto it on the lack of merits.
    This bill will NOT create a better Vermont society
    This bill is NOTHING to be proud of.
    This bill will INCREASE healthcare costs
    This bill will INCREASE policing enforcement costs
    This bill will INCREASE endangering Vermont’s police forces
    This bill will INCREASE erratic driving, and accidents, endangering the lives of innocent drivers who are being sacrificed by legislators.
    How can these people sleep at night. Their cowardly crassness is worse than Trump’s.
    Those who use marijuana “recreationally” function with addled brains.
    They make poor decisions.
    Their “spaced-out” state adversely affects their own wellbeing and that of their families and communities.
    The act and react slowly.
    They endanger themselves and others on and of the job and driving.
    Their “recreational” use will lead to other opiates to alleviate the realities of their lives.
    Repeated exposure to foreign substances leads to alterations of healthy functioning.
    Repeated exposure to foreign substances, especially in the womb, adversely affect neural and brain development, for life.
    I am over 80 years old.
    Smoked pot and other junk when I was much younger.
    Many a time, after a party, I stayed with a friend, instead of being stupid and driving home.
    Many a time, a SOBER friend drove me home.
    Many a time, a stoned friend drove someone else home; sometimes that worked out OK, sometimes not.
    Just sharing my experiences of at least 5 decades ago.
    Scott will be the hero of many people, if he vetoes that infamous bill.
    Scott will have no trouble getting re-elected as many times as he wants.
    Last time, he won by a landslide in a Democrat-dominated state.
    No other Democrat could beat him.

  2. First of all, law enforcement’s job is not to make the law, or try to influence the law. It’s job is to enforce the law. So, quit whining. You might have to actually work for your pay instead of reaching for the low fruit such as marijuana arrests. And, if you really cared for the safety of the citizens, you would push to have alcohol, the most dangerous substance out there, made illegal again. But then again, you would have to destroy Vermont’s money-making craft beer cartels! So, since the bill has been passed, here’s a suggestion. Just enforce the law.

  3. This is going to be fun to watch. Vermont will now have people with out insurance, DLS and others with no license driving kite high on legal pot. This ought to work out well. They don’t obey the other laws, why would you think they won’t drive stoned.

    • Legal or not legal people in Vermont have been smoking cannabis from the beginning of time huge waste of taxpayers money going into locking people up arresting people for cannabis ignorance of people who believe that the highways are going to be worse than they are now because cannabis is legal is absurd

      • The ‘will the roads be less safe’ argument turns on one question: will a significant number of drivers be on the road who are cannabis users because its possession and use are now legal? My guess is – no.

  4. The wiesels were so ashamed of what they did they used a voice vote not a role call – so they can individuals can deny they voted for it.

  5. When they stop turning every heroin dealer into a c f I then come talk to us about pot legalization in my community,y they bust the same people again and again for heroin in large quantities and then they turn them loose on our streets to do it all over again .im so sick of hearing we are trying to get the big guy while I watch kids that went to school with mine die of overdoses of this poison they allow to take over our towns while they chase the imaginary big guy that’s not even in our state he’s in n y or mass. So they talk out of both sides of thier face on these issues.

  6. If the police in VT were smart, they’d quit, each and everyone of them! Their Rep’s don’t represent them, VT Liberals all hate them, the judicial system won’t support them. They should all throw up their hands, turn in their guns and badges, go on home, crack a beer, put their feet up and watch these same people that won’t support them run around in circles in a complete panic while 911 phone go unanswered. But they won’t, no more than every military service person would do it, because they hold themselves to a higher standard and serve higher powers than that of the idiots in the statehouse Montpeculier, like Duty, Integrity, and Honor.
    Too bad though, it would be fun to watch Vermont getting EXACTLY what it deserves.

  7. So the bottom line with all this is, that Montpelier is just looking for the revenue that may come
    from this product , as they cannot get a handle on frivolous spending !! They ( Montpelier )
    could give a damn about any ramifications or safety issues …… It’s all about the money as
    this is only the first step to commercial Sales…………..

    Personally I don’t smoke Pot ,I don’t care if you do within the confines of your house , but when
    you are out on the road that’s when I have an issue , I see enough mayhem daily and we don’t
    need another problem. So how does law enforcement enforce if your driving ??

    If this issue if ever going to have closure then the Federal Government need to take it off the
    illegal drug list and some how put rules and regulation like Alcohol and we know people abuse
    this every day and POT will be no different .

    If your Drunk or High while driving , you pay the penalties but Montpelier cannot even tell you
    that !! What are the specifics for to tell if you High ???? …………..

    Stay at home , I’m ok with it !!

    • We’ve been using it in Vermont for hundreds of years. It was legal until 1937. (According to the constitution, it still is legal). Why all of a sudden would you want to move? lol – Are you horrified to discover that half the people you know smoke it, and have for decades????

  8. Thank you Louis Varricchio for this excellent coverage. I deeply respect Chief Merkel and am dumbfounded at the deafness of the Legislature and the Governor to his warnings.
    The Governor said ” He does not want the government to interfere in what citizens do in the privacy of their homes ” , while this statement is a noble libertarian tenet, the complexity arises when the consequences and costs of dangerous behaviors are borne by unwilling taxpayers.

    • The Constitution doesnt give anyone the right to tell me what I put in my own body. The Governor has finally stepped up to the plate on this issue (something I did not expect). The majority of the people who will use cannabis after legalization, have used it for decades. Nothing will change except the state taxpayers wont have to waste Billions chasing a plant that can not be controlled. Since trick Dick Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ was waged in 1970, drugs have steadily gotten easier and easier to obtain. Nationwide, over a Trillion dollars of taxpayer money has been wasted chasing drugs. You cant stop people from getting what they want. In fact its the easiest it ever has been since its unlawful/unconstitutional prohibition. The more you try to regulate, the more the black market THRIVES. You do realize that Vermonters used cannabis freely and lawfully for hundreds of years until 1937 right? Well we didnt just stop in 1937, but now we have to hide it better. Save us taxpayers some money. Legalize

    • I think it’s time to clean the House and Senate in Montpelier. Communities are struggling with continued “Progressive’ mandates from the “majority’ in Montpelier. Only we the voters can change that. I don’t know who they think will pay for all of these feel good programs and Vermont Leadership on world issues that will amount to just about nothing in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a fact that Vermont has less than stellar business climate and a constantly growing gap in revenue vs. expenses at the State level is most troublesome. It is on its way to becoming a third world state in many ways. When I came to Vermont I was impressed by the rugged individualism of it’s people and the genuine caring for one another and respect for differences of opinion.

      Now it seems that we are constantly having things shoved down our throat by some people who have another agenda, who think because they are allowed the opportunity and privilege to serve as our representatives they are somehow anointed to do as they please without thoughtful consideration, testimony, or even thoughtful debate from their peers who may differ in opinion and Input from their constituents. Too much power is vested in one Region of the State and that’s not the Vermont way.

      The Legislature is taking a dangerous turn by not listening to the people (law enforcement and others in public safety) who know the most about the impact of issues such as thissee and have to live with the results of short sighted decisions like the Marajuna legalization without rules, and technology to insure the safety of the public. We hear the all too common refrain. We will pass it and then deal with the issues later.

      Now we will watch and see how this decision really effects the lives of people. What increase in traffic accidents, deaths and injuries from people driving under the influence is acceptable to out leaders? What additional strains will be placed on our already stretched public safety agencies who respond to these incidents?

      We the people will see the results.

      • ‘Now it seems that we are constantly having things shoved down our throat by some people who have another agenda’

        The only agenda here is the agenda of Big Pharma, the same Big Pharma that is fueling the opiod/heroine epidemic. They know that cannabis users don’t take their toxic pharmaceutic drugs and they cant patent the plant to monopolize the profits from it. They know their drugs are killing 200,000 people a year. they know cannabis has never killed anyone. In fact its virtually impossible to overdose on cannabis. Who has the REAL agenda? What substances are the real threats? Not cannabis

        • Well George according to your earlier post about NO one has the right to tell you what you can put in your body. If you believe that then do you also believe that all drugs including heroin and cocaine should be legalized?

    • It was far time to do that 25 years ago. Now they finally do something right and that is what triggers you? lol – You people have been voting in communist Bernie Sanders and his Socialist/Democrat policies for 30+ years and you still dont know why your state is circling down the toilet? pfft

  9. I predict a classic Ignore & Blame scenario by the so-called “progressives” in Montpelier. When it comes to legalizing weed, they’ll ignore the concerns of law enforcement and then blame law enforcement when DUI-related accidents and deaths increase.

    • I personally know a retired Vermont State Trooper who says otherwise. He even had a license from the state to grow it for agency purposes. He told me LOT of them say it should be legal. So who is it that gets to be the sole voice of ‘law enforcement’? Some bureaucratic talking head being paid off by Big Pharma? You want to do the country some good? Shut down Big Pharma’s opiods and other addictive drugs. They actually KILL 200,000 people a year. Cannabis kills ZERO people a year.

      • “Cannabis kills ZERO people a year” Really? Ask the four dead people in Bridport. Oh, you can’t ask them because they are dead? Nevermind.

    • What betrayal?? Cannabis prohibition was never lawful in the first place! You need an amendment to the constitution for such a thing! Remember the 18th amendment??? Alcohol prohibition! When was that done for cannabis? I know why most of the cops love busting people with cannabis. Then they dont have to pay for it themselves. Is that why they are mad? They will have to pay for it now like everyone else??

    • I know a lot of left leaning Vermont voters that voted for Gov. Scott that wouldn’t do so again if he vetoed this bill.

      BTW why do you want to punish someone who possesses and/or ingests a plant? Sure punish them when they (key words) rob for drug money or crash because they’re intoxicated… in those instances they caused harm or did damage to property otherwise what gives you or a group of individuals (the government) the right to punish anyone else?

  10. Like the law enforcement officers, I, also, feel betrayed. Sixteen years ago, my husband and I adopted three siblings who had been removed from their birth mother’s custody when she gave birth to a drug addicted baby. While we were doing our best to help these kids, our kids, recover from the abuse and neglect of the past, one of our children, a ten year old boy, was befriended by the adopted son of a Vermont foster parent, which foster parent enabled her son and ours to use alcohol and marijuana. We did everything in our power to keep our son away from his new “friend” to no avail. Soon, he became friends with another adult woman, also a Vermont foster parent, who tried to get his social security number, ostensibly so she could pay him for babysitting the children who had been placed in her custody while he was in her home without our permission. Things went from bad to worse, with alcohol and marijuana being central to all our problems with our son. Eventually, Judge Kathleen Manley told me that, at age 63,my husband and I were too old to be taking care of a 17 year old boy, and she put him in the custody of the woman whose son had first introduced him to alcohol, and who had allowed her son and ours to use. She abandoned him when he turned 18, and he has been in and out of jail since then. I am certainly not happy that the same senator, Joe Benning, who was paid by the state of Vermont to be my son’s defense attorney, and who has seen the effects of marijuana on children and their families, would have led the effort to legalize marijuana in our state. I guess, since many of our legislators are also defense attorneys, they are hooked on the fact that marijuana provides them with easy profits.

    • You start off talking about a drug addicted baby. Then that is the last time you mentioned it, or the actual drug the mother was addicted to. Cannabis is not a drug, its a plant. It is not addictive. Caffeine, nicotine, sugar, and wheat products, are addictive. Science has proven that cannabis is not addictive. There are no harmful withdrawal symptoms when you stop its use. There are no known deaths in the history of the planet solely from its use. There are no known permanent side effects from its use. It is literally safer to use than it is to eat peanut butter. So now you can tell us about the drug you are really mad about. You know, the drug addicted mom that your story started with…….it wasn’t cannabis.

    • Ms. Schoppe: It is precisely BECAUSE I have “seen the effects of marijuana on children and their families” that I have fought so long to have this substance removed from our court system. Your implying that defense attorneys would support legalization because doing so would bring us “easy profits” makes no sense. It would only make sense if we were trying to revert back to prohibition, which would obviously bring about more court cases. I can only now look back in sympathy for the untold tens of thousands whose lives were radically altered because of the way they were treated being prosecuted for possession. And for all that, what, exactly, did we accomplish?

  11. The article, and what I’ve read of the debate in the legislature, seems not to focus at all on the important part of the issue of DUI/marijuana, i.e. how an unacceptable level of intoxication will be detected. Is there any published information available?

    • How is it detected now? The people who will smoke it if its legal, have been smoking it for decades. The fact is, is that it has never been an issue. People that drink quickly lose the ability to drive safely. People that use cannabis tend to drive more cautiously or just stay home altogether. Vermonters have smoked cannabis for hundreds of years, it has never been an issue. Why is it all of a sudden an issue to you now? Nothing will change on the roads. There will still be completely sober, stupid people allowed to drive – they are the real threat.

      • There will be traffic arrests caused by DUI/cannabis(marijuana). What will be the basis for the charge? If no specific ‘influence’ level is established by law, courtrooms may become even more of a mess than they are already. The tendency for the active cannabis chemical to hang around in the body is another factor to be considered. Personally, I think any law should make use of modern camera technology combined with LEO judgement, and arrest on the basis of ‘driving impaired’. The required evidence would be visual rather than chemical. To answer your ‘why now’ question, it appears that cannabis in connection with operating vehicle on public roads will have to be treated similarly to alcohol. Or, under my suggested procedure, alcohol should be treated under the same ‘driving impaired’ basis as cannabis – and drugs in general.

        • Vermonters have been using cannabis for hundreds of years. Nothing will change except for how many tax payer dollars are wasted chasing a plant that CAN NOT be controlled. Nixon’s War on Drugs and its abysmal failure is proof of that. Drugs are easier to get now then they ever have been. And none of them are as safe as cannabis. We have been driving for years – you haven’t noticed us because we drive MORE cautiously

        • More to your point, traffic arrests should have nothing to do with cannabis or not. If you are driving like an idiot there are already tickets they can give you for driving like an idiot. If you are driving fine, why should it matter if traces of cannabis are left in your system?

  12. I guess Vermonters and other Northern New Englanders don’t have enough drug problems to deal with yet – heroin and prescription pills. They have to add pot legalization. What next? Pretty soon, there will be so many drug abusers in Vermont that no one will be working to pay the bills and everyone will be in rehab trying to get clean. Isn’t government’s mantra to look out and protect its population, not let them do whatever they want to do whenever? Something to think about, isn’t it?

    • I do believe that easy accessibility to a benign plant like cannabis will lure people away from the dangerous drugs. Most people that use cannabis are happy staying away from all other drugs, including deadly alcohol (which is legal by the way). At least 50% of the people that you interact with every day have used or are using cannabis. They have families, they hold jobs, they own homes. The same is usually not to be said of a heroin user. You make a good point though, the pills are the real danger. Prescription pills kill 200,000 people every year. Do you know how many people died from cannabis alone? Zero. Do you know how many deaths there have been in history that could be pinpointed to cannabis alone? That’s right, ZERO. I think your beef should be with Big Pharma (‘legal’ drugs), you know, the ones actually fueling the opiod epidemic.

    • Your are absolutely correct. Government should be looking out for the best interest in the people. Which is why they should be spending more time going after big pharma (that’s the real killer)
      Vermont doesn’t blink an eye to adding safe spaces to shoot up, and expensive methadone Suboxone clinics. People drive away from those everyday under the influence.
      Marijuana is harmless compared to that. It also could potentially offer benefits away from that lifestyle.

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