MONTPELIER — Marijuana legalization bill S.22 made it to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk largely along partisan lines, but law enforcement and some liberal lawmakers are issuing strong warnings about reefer madness in Vermont.
“When I hear all the reasons why law enforcement is against this (according to legalization proponents), I really wish people would just stop that nonsense and really deal with the issues,” Vermont Police Association President George Merkel told True North. “(The issue is) about public safety and the protection of our communities, homes and kids.”
Last week, state Rep. Steve Beyor, R-Highgate Springs, told True North he thinks legislators aren’t listening to experts who deal with marijuana as part of their daily profession.
“The only thing that’s left is how much money we can make on it,” he said, referring to the motive he thinks is most driving the push for legalization.
Merkel, who also serves as police chief of Vergennes, shares that view.
“Why are we in such a hurry? The reason is the money aspect of it,” he said.
“I don’t care who tells me from the legislature what the reasons are, I don’t buy it. It’s not about individual usage; it’s about the money coming from commercialization.”
S.22 is a compromise between the House proposal, which focused on possession and growing, and the Senate proposal, which aims for taxing and regulating the market.
The bill eliminates criminal penalties for adult possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, allows Vermonters to grow two mature and four immature marijuana plants, and establishes a framework for a system of taxation and regulation. If signed by the governor, pot legalization would go into effect July 1, 2018.
An estimated 80,000 Vermonters are marijuana smokers, and some of them drive under the influence. Nationally, about 10 million people drive while under the influence of illegal drugs. Second only to alcohol, marijuana is the drug most often found in the blood of drivers involved in crashes.
According to Merkel, Vermont isn’t ready for legalization, especially when it comes to road safety.
“Right now there’s no formal roadside testing in the state of Vermont. We don’t have the equipment. We have nothing. So that itself presents an issue,” he said.
To identify who is driving stoned, highway patrol must use taxpayer money to hire specially trained officers known as DREs, or drug recognition experts. DREs help police gauge if a person is driving under the influence of marijuana during field sobriety tests.
He added that it’s also costly for the state to administer blood tests to follow up on drugged driving arrests. Such tests can result in a higher number of reduced sentences.
Merkel also criticized the one-ounce rule on the basis that it allows marijuana traffickers to slip past police.
“If you have five people in one car and each person is entitled to have an ounce in their possession, and there’s five ounces of marijuana in the car, they may be trafficking that, but it’s very easy for them to say that each one of them in the car owns an ounce,” he said.
Like Merkel, state Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlintgon, who voted against S.22, also opposes legalization for safety reasons.
“I don’t think the legislation contained protection of young people and protection of their use of marijuana under the expanded availability that would follow with legalization,” she said. “And I do not think the bill had sufficient provisions for highway safety. We don’t have a roadside test for the presence of marijuana. We don’t have sufficient drug recognition officers.”
Browning also noted that the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, along with heroin and LSD, as defined under the Controlled Substances Act. “It matters for me,” she said.
Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, also voted against legalization, and says Vermont should slow down and take a more careful approach.
“For me this is too big of an issue to make a mistake,” he said. “I think there’s no reason to rush into this and do legalization now. No one is going to jail or prison for use of small amounts of marijuana, so there’s no reason to rush into this.”