Opponents of ending marijuana prohibition often say that marijuana is not a risk-free proposition. While the specific concerns raised are frequently overblown, at the end of the day, these opponents are right about the one thing: marijuana is not risk-free.

However, as our legislators continue to debate legalization, it is important to keep in mind the fundamental fact that the risks of marijuana use already exist under our “decriminalization” regime, where small possession is fined but production and sale are driven underground. There is no reason to think that the risks will magically disappear under a legalization regime.

But it’s only under a properly regulated regime that the risks of marijuana use can be effectively addressed and minimized. Because, let’s face it, Vermonters are going to keep on using marijuana whether it’s legal or not. By keeping it illegal, we are turning a blind eye to the public health impacts of marijuana, instead of actually trying to address them, and strengthening organized crime instead of our communities.

The most important risks to consider, in my view, are those related to youth access and use. As a father of two school-age children, I look at the current state of marijuana in Vermont and shudder. A comprehensive Department of Health survey revealed that over 75 percent of our high school seniors view marijuana as “easy to get” – by the way, that’s compared to just half of adults over the age of 35! And fully one in four Vermont 12th-graders use marijuana at least once a month – well above the national average.

This is the current state of affairs. After nearly a century of doubled-down prohibition policies, of vilifying marijuana and locking users up in jail for non-violent, victimless offenses, marijuana is ubiquitously available to our kids. More easily available to kids, in fact, than to adults.

But Vermont has a choice.

We can get rid of today’s shady underground dealers, who have no compunction about selling to kids, or selling much more harmful substances alongside marijuana, and replace them with reputable, licensed retailers who will invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing fees, retail rents, inventory, store build-out costs and so forth, and who won’t be able to afford to take those risks.

After nearly a century of doubled-down prohibition policies, of vilifying marijuana and locking users up in jail for non-violent, victimless offenses, marijuana is ubiquitously available to our kids. More easily available to kids, in fact, than to adults.

We can require ID checks, and record-keeping, and hit those who sell to kids or violate other rules with serious financial penalties and loss of licenses.

And we can direct the revenues that this system generates towards effective, evidence-based education, prevention and treatment programs that will succeed where generations of prohibition and baseless propaganda have failed.

We’ve seen how smart public health initiatives have drastically reduced teen cigarette smoking rates over the past 20 years, and we can do the same with marijuana – but only if we make a real effort.

That effort should begin with passage of S.241, a sensible marijuana regulation bill that has already been approved by the Senate’s Judiciary and Finance committees. While not perfect, this bill would move Vermont forward with a thoughtful, phased-in approach aimed at minimizing the harms associated with marijuana and reducing the influence of the underground market.

It’s our choice. Call your representatives today, and let them know that you are among the clear majority of Vermonters who support legalization, and want them to address marijuana as the public health issue it is, instead of a trumped-up crime. The number is 828-2228. The friendly staff at the Sergeant-at-Arms’ office will hand-deliver your message to your representative right away.

This commentary is by Dave Silberman, a registered independent and attorney in Middlebury. This commentary is written by Mr. Silberman in his private capacity, and not as a representative of any client. Follow Dave at @davesilberman on Twitter.

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