ESSEX, Vt. — Last night, more than 50 people crowded into the Essex High School cafeteria for a community forum regarding the legalization of marijuana hosted by Heart and Soul of Essex, a nonprofit that coordinates interactive community forums.
With the legislature in recess this week, the forum was attended by all five Essex/Westford representatives, as well as three Chittenden County senators (Tim Ashe, David Zuckerman, and Virginia Lyons, respectively). Also in attendance were the chief of police and several uniformed and plain-clothed members of both the police and fire/rescue department. The interactive forum featured an opportunity for dedicated anti- and pro-legalization representatives to speak, as well as a full hour of public comments.
The anti-legalization argument was presented by Mariah Sanderson of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Vermont volunteer group affiliated with the national organization of the same name. The anti-legalization arguments mainly focused on the group’s avowed concerns: dangers to youth of normalizing marijuana, increased addiction from increased access, and a process they describe as anything but slow and deliberate.
While there was plenty of concern about the slippery slope into legalization, gambling and prostitution, and associations of marijuana with opiates, opponents also criticized the speed of the process and called for more discussion and better data. “This is not regulation, this is commercialization that will benefit for-profit companies,” said Sanderson.
One opponent, a small business owner, worried about the impact of legalization on his insurance rates, while most others stressed health and safety concerns. “Individual choices have impacts,” said the head of Essex Rescue.
The SAM members against legalization were also joined by several local authorities and leaders (most in uniform), including Essex Chief of Police Brad LaRose, who had previously testified against legalization in January, and the director of Essex Rescue.
The pro-legalization side was represented by Laura Subin, director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana. Subin, a longtime human rights attorney, highlighted racial imbalance in the enforcement of marijuana-related crimes, and pointed to the criminal implications of marijuana crimes, saying “civil fines of $200 to $500 aren’t cheap for a lot of Vermonters.”
As a part of the forum, the members of the public who wanted to speak for and against legalization were asked to stand on opposite sides of the room before alternating two-minute speeches; the anti-legalization line was over 25 long, whereas less than ten spoke in favor of legalization.
Pro-legalization advocates suggested that the problems facing students were being exacerbated by the current marijuana laws, and defended the low turnout explaining that many of their supporters would be hesitant to speak out publicly in support of marijuana, especially in a room full of police officers — no matter how many cookies they bring.
Representative Paul Dame (R-8-2) said he was surprised by the ratio of supporters, but recognized that the opponents feel strongly and it’s a polarizing issue. For him, it’s an issue where he’s still being educated and hearing strong arguments on both sides.
“Usually I know exactly where I am on an issue and I let everyone know,” Dame said after the forum. “This is an issue where I started out against it, then I started hearing the credible arguments that were for it, and now you’re hearing a little more with the opposition to it … Some of the things that didn’t get mentioned tonight and have made me pause about this are that everything that happened with Big Tobacco is likely to happen with marijuana unless we do something to intervene.”
Listen to an audio interview with Rep. Paul Dame following the marijuana legalization forum at Essex High School on Wednesday, March 2, 2016: