When the House Committees on Judiciary and Government Operations announced a public hearing on cannabis legalization for 5pm March 31, expectations were that the prohibitionists would outnumber supporters of legalization by a wide margin. After all, as the conventional wisdom held, opponents like SAM-VT are well organized, and supporters tend to be younger, less politically engaged, and less likely to be able to take time off work to attend.
To everyone’s surprise, reality got in the way of conventional wisdom that evening, and what legislators saw instead was a surge of grass-roots support for ending our failed 80-year experiment with prohibition.
Of the 58 people who testified, only 19 spoke against S. 241 – and nearly half of those actually spoke in favor of legalization. These speakers called for legalization, but were opposed to the fact that S.241, as passed by the Senate, does not allow people to grow their own cannabis plants in their gardens, and did not provide sufficient opportunity for small-scale farmers to participate in the new cannabis economy. Setting these important details aside, fully three-quarters of the testimony was strongly in favor of reform.
Impressively, this public show of force came despite TV news cameras and reporters taking away the safety net of anonymity, and despite a large uniformed police presence in the House chamber, acting to reinforce the stigma already felt by cannabis users every day, and thereby chilling free expression. And yet speaker after speaker bravely stood up for a sensible drug policy.
In the past six months, we have spoken with hundreds of Vermonters up and down the state who’ve told us that while they support legalization, they are afraid to call their legislators, write a letter to the editor, or even talk with their neighbors about legalization. We’ve heard hundreds of stories about fear of personal, political or professional retribution for speaking up for something that is against the law.
That’s because support for legalization is not confined to the stereotypical “stoner” lazing around in a fog, eating snacks and accomplishing little. In reality, legalization supporters we’ve spoken with come from all walks of life, include successful people in every field, and happen to be your friends and neighbors.
Take, for example, the high school teacher from Lamoille County, who told us that he doesn’t want to jeopardize his job, especially since the principals’ and superintendents’ association issued a statement opposing legalization. Or the nurse in the Mad River Valley who is afraid of what her boss will think. The social worker in Orange County who thinks legalization is “a no brainer,” but fears that saying so in public would be the end of his career. The municipal employee in Caledonia County who doesn’t want to ruffle the town manager’s feathers. The co-owner of a construction firm, who doesn’t use marijuana herself, but is afraid of what potential clients would think if she publicly supported legalization. The mother in Orleans County, who prefers to take a puff of marijuana after her kids are in bed, instead of the couple of beers her husband usually enjoys, but is afraid DCF will come for a visit if anyone found out. The police officer from Addison County, who’s afraid to speak out because his department chief is one of the loudest voices in the state against legalization.
Legislators must take heed of the impressive grass-roots turnout at the public hearing, and consider that this came despite the very real and substantial barriers to speaking openly about an activity that remains against the law. And just like 75% of the speakers at this hearing, a resounding 68% of Vermonters ages 18 to 45 support legalization.
Vermonters are making their voices heard loud and clear: now is the time to legalize and regulate cannabis for adult use. The House should address the flaws of S.241 by allowing personal cultivation of 2 plants per household, by expanding access to affordable cultivation licenses for small farmers, and by immediately eliminating all civil and criminal penalties for possession of up to 4 ounces of cannabis in one’s home and up to 1 ounce on one’s person. And then the House should pass this bill, and put an end to our sad and misguided history of prohibition.
Dave Silberman is an attorney in Middlebury. Ben Brown, of Pittsford, is a community organizer and founder of NewGrassRoots, a political advocacy firm empowering citizens to connect with their representatives.