Monday’s the big day for marijuana legalization. The House is set to hold votes on two very different versions — so different, it’d be fair to say they are diametrically opposed. And therein lies the problem: the momentum toward legalization has splintered. Governor Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith, who both favor legalization, could pull a rabbit out of a hat — and that’s what it would take: a last-minute snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat.
Ironically, one possible outcome of the legalization drive is not any loosening of the law, but instead a crackdown on buzzed driving.
Unlikely, but possible. The most probable scenario is some sort of incremental, unsatisfying move that will provide a fig leaf of political cover for those (starting with Shumlin) who invested heavily in this fight. What might that be? Perhaps a nonbinding statewide referendum. Perhaps, as WCAX’s Kyle Midura said on “Vermont This Week,” some loosening of the state’s medical marijuana law. Perhaps something that’s not even on the table at the moment. Monday could be a long day on the House floor.
There are two major obstacles. First, not enough pro-legalization movement in the House, which was always the most likely killing ground for the idea. Second, the Senate and House took such different approaches that there’s no room for compromise.
The Senate took a top-down approach, establishing a regulated market for marijuana. It specifically rejected a grow-your-own exemption, arguing that it would weaken the broader effort to control the consumption of marijuana.
The House bill that will be considered on the floor Monday is centered on grow-your-own. It would create a licensing process for people who wanted to grow small amounts for personal consumption. Precisely what the Senate didn’t want.
Rarely do I find myself saying this, but I agree with the Senate.
Grow-your-own is a nice idea, with the aura of Vermonters doing for themselves and eschewing large-scale enterprise. But the House bill would do nothing to cut down on the black market, which is supposedly one of the chief benefits of legalization. There would still be powerful incentives for illicit trafficking; many consumers simply don’t want to go to the time and trouble of cultivating and prepping their own weed. Plus, there’s the cost of the license: $125 per year.
I also wonder how many people would refuse to buy a license because they don’t want to be on official record as a marijuana grower, perhaps courting trouble with authorities at a time when marijuana would still be illegal. Would the police have access to the license lists? Would the public? If so, I’d be worried about my personal safety.
It seems academic at this point, because the vote-counters in the House say there’s not enough support for either bill. Indeed, one possible outcome is a one-sided defeat that sets the legalization movement back for the foreseeable future.
Let’s double back to the irony noted above. While the House has not passed any sort of legalization bill, they have moved a measure that would lower the level defining legal intoxication for drivers who test positive for both alcohol and marijuana. So it’s possible that the House rejects any sort of legalization and the Senate passes the driving-while-buzzed bill — which would mean, instead of loosening restrictions on marijuana, we would have created a whole new crime centered on pot consumption.
That unhappy scenario is a longshot, because there’s not much support in the Senate for the idea. Which is a good thing (heavens, I’m siding with the Senate again) because the science behind the pot test — a measure of detectable ingredients in saliva — is awfully shaky. In a study commissioned by the Vermont Department of Public Safety, the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education said:
“A limitation of OF (oral fluid) is that drug concentrations cannot be related to a specific degree of impairment in the driver.”
That sentence, right there, undercuts the entire case for the House bill. Defender General Matt Valerio called it “Reefer Madness II” — a panic-induced move to unfairly imperil those who smoke pot and drink.
Fortunately, as I said, the Senate is unlikely to pass the bill. But, as the ACLU’s Allen Gilbert warned, this approach may well come back in the 2017 Legislature. Science or no science.
The course of the marijuana debate has been so all over the place that, if it were a car driving down the road, it surely would have prompted a police stop and a spit test. And maybe a conviction for Legislating While Impaired.