BURLINGTON, Vt. — On Wednesday, Vermonters learned that a new candidate — but very familiar politician — would be joining the Democratic Primary race for Lieutenant Governor. Former House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) will now join State Senator David Zuckerman (D/P-Chittenden) and Representative Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) in the three way primary; Former State Auditor and State Senator Randy Brock is presently the only announced Republican candidate.
When it comes to cannabis, Zuckerman has been a champion of reform for over a decade, a fact that has certainly boosted his visibility around the state during his campaign. He and Chittenden County Senate candidate and former Burlington representative Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) had proposed complimentary legalization bills in 2015 (S.95 and H.277), which failed to gain traction.
The real position of Speaker Smith is more complex: as a leader in the House, he had not made cannabis a priority; however, when he announced his intention to run for governor, he told VPR in October that he favored legalization. When he decided to drop out of the Gubernatorial race, his support for the issue cooled, even as the Senate and Shumlin Administration desperately pressed for House support. In the final weekend of the session, amidst rumors that he may enter the LG race (which turned out to be true), Smith came full circle and seemingly offered support for the issue, if not any of the legislative proposals in front of him.
But what about the first Democratic candidate to announce intent to take over as lieutenant governor, Kesha Ram? With the session winding down, Editor Eli Harrington sat down with Ram for an extended interview about her position on cannabis reform and the political hurdles it still faces. This interview was originally recorded on Wednesday, May 4 (the day the House put the nail in the cannabis coffin), and is featured in full on the Vermontijuana podcast and below.
Still one of the youngest politicians in Montpelier, Ram is a familiar face in Vermont politics, having just finished her eighth year in the House, after first entering the legislature at age 22 fresh off of her graduation from the University of Vermont. As one of the few Millennials in the House, and whose constituency includes UVM and Burlington’s eclectic Old North End, on paper she would have seemed likely to support the issue, especially considering Zuckerman’s eagerness to highlight his longtime support as a progressive/democratic campaign plank.
However, even though she entered the race before both Zuckerman and Smith, Ram hadn’t prioritized cannabis advocacy as part of her campaign, but had not as a pressing priority, even as the legislation entered the House following Senate passage. She explained that it’s been an issue of interest to her and that she had been involved in the process vis-à-vis the Rand Report, which she worked with colleagues on the Ways and Means Committee to help commission in 2015.
“I think we owe it to Vermonters to have a more thoughtful conversation in the future, now that we’ve seen what’s come down.”
“At the time, I really felt like the conversation was building and it was going to be pivotal for us to start thinking about how to reform our cannabis policy … I have been someone who has always wanted to have this conversation, have taken votes as a small minority in the House to make sure we’re getting the right information and charting the right course forward to recognize that there are a lot of people who use cannabis medically, who integrate it into their lives and routines in a safe way.”
She does have reservations and concerns that she feels still need to be addressed by advocates who want to continue to move the cannabis conversation forward. One that became apparent from the RAND study is the impact of Vermont’s neighboring states:
“What we got back from the RAND study is something that gave me pause to make sure that we figure this out well, and that’s that we’re a tiny state with huge populations around us and that does show up in our drug trafficking, our gun trafficking, our human trafficking in Vermont. We’re a state that’s low on law enforcement reach and we have people traveling in corridors through the state that are taking advantage.”
In addition to the concerns of law enforcement, Ram cited the opiate epidemic briefly, saying “We have an opiate epidemic and a substance abuse crisis in the state and I don’t think anyone can argue that. That said, given how many people do use cannabis, we need to probably figure out a better policy.”
Another sticky point she said, was the feeling that municipalities were not being included in the conversation.
“Some of the concerns I had were hearing from representatives of municipalities, towns, cities, and school districts that they didn’t feel like they were given a full opportunity to be heard in that process.”
Presumably, much of that opposition came from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, who vocally opposed S.95 and S.241 and were very much part of the process under the Golden Dome, both testifying against S241 in the Senate, and employing their lobbyists to work the hallways with other opponents.
In addition to citing the traditional concerns, Ram also noted the hypocrisy of opening up a new industry that would generate millions for the most-funded, but that might prevent nonviolent drug offenders (disproportionally minorities) from participating in the green rush.
At the end of the day, Kesha Ram is tentatively supportive of cannabis reform, with her hesitation and concerns representing the majority mainstream Vermont Democratic party attitude towards cannabis: It’s inevitable and we don’t want to oppose it, but we need clear political consensus of the “how” it happens before we fully take on the law enforcement, drug prevention, and health care lobbies that would prefer the status quo.
For her, the campaign and legislative energy has thus far been better spent focusing on other issues (she mentioned the renewable energy siting debate and issues of economic justice several times), but she did share insight into the process and apparent frustration at the outcome.
“People got really dug into their position and it became clear that committees couldn’t agree with one another, let alone build agreement that the House could support, and I do find that frustrating. I think we owe it to Vermonters to have a more thoughtful conversation in the future, now that we’ve seen what’s come down … and I do have to say, to be fair, Vermonters do have a lot of other priorities.”
Listen to the full interview below. Kesha Ram introduction and interview starting at 7:20: