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Dave Silberman is an attorney and pro bono legalization advocate in Middlebury.  This column does not represent the views of any client.  He occasionally tweets about cannabis politics and policy at @DaveSilberman.

Having failed to convince the public that continuing our disastrous 80-year experiment with cannabis prohibition will find success if we just wait long enough, prohibitionists have frantically switched arguments in recent months, and now warn about the supposed evils of “big weed” and “commercialization”, rather than the substance itself.  If we legalize cannabis, they say (now), we’ll end up with money-hungry corporations that will air advertisements on Saturday morning cartoons and hook your kids.

There are two main problems with this argument.  One, of course, is its rank disingenuity: the same people who now claim to support decriminalizing the cultivation of one or two plants for personal use as a supposed alternative to full legalization actively lobbied against exactly that proposal when the Vermont House of Representatives considered it just four short months ago.  The second problem with the “big weed” argument is that it’s entirely divorced from reality.

In the real world, as opposed to the fantasyland that prohibitionists want us to believe we live in, cannabis is already a lucrative commercial product.  According to a non-partisan report commissioned by the Legislature in 2014, Vermonters spend nearly $200 million per year on cannabis.  Collectively, we consume more cannabis per capita than the residents of any other state where it remains illegal. 

But, because cannabis remains illegal to grow, possess, and sell, our current market looks very different from that for most other products.  We recently saw a typical example of how cannabis is “commercialized” in Vermont today when police arrested a Bennington couple on September 6 on various drug and weapons charges.   Police reports painted a grim but common picture of the direct impact of prohibition laws:  instead of cannabis being sold at reputable retailers who check ID (as is done with alcohol, a far more dangerous and addictive substance), it is sold from people’s homes, typically, as in this case, in poor neighborhoods, often alongside more addictive and dangerous drugs, and to any willing customer regardless of age.  Instead of THC extracts being manufactured in safe, laboratory settings, they are often produced in dense residential neighborhoods, where an accidental butane-fueled explosion could leave multiple vulnerable families homeless.  And it’s safe to assume that zero sales taxes were remitted to the state on the nearly $400,000 in cannabis sales alleged to have been booked by the Bennington couple in the past year alone, and that their drug income was not reported on their tax returns last April.

This is what the “commercial” cannabis market looks like today, but it doesn’t have to look that way.  Legalizing the production, sale and possession of cannabis will clean up the existing unregulated, underground, and often violent market, just as it has in Colorado, Washington and Oregon – all states that drug dealers have largely fled following legalization.  Not a single TV commercial for cannabis has ever aired in any of those states, not during those Saturday morning cartoons, nor on late night TV, and rates of underage use have shown no increase following legalization.   

I propose we take a smart approach instead.  We should craft sensible regulations that protect public health, and prevent chains of dispensaries from clustering in certain neighborhoods, giving municipalities both control over where these tax-paying businesses can set up shop and a portion of the tax revenues they generate.  We should demand that legalization includes requirements for in-state majority ownership and control of cannabis businesses, to encourage socially responsible business behavior and community reinvestment.  Vermont’s legalization law should encourage small-scale cultivation, with affordable license fees, so that our farmers have a new option for diversified agriculture, and that those of our neighbors who are already surreptitiously growing cannabis today can join the regulated marketplace, as the vast majority desire.   And, importantly, any adult should be allowed to bypass the retail market entirely by growing two or three plants at home for her personal consumption.

Legalization will not bring commercialization of cannabis to Vermont – it’s already here.  Instead of continuing to incentivize the frequently dangerous illicit market, it’s time for Vermont’s legislature to create a reasonably regulated market that gives adults safe, legal access to a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol.

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