Thursday December 17, 2015
The South Burlington Steering Committee, a non-voting body made up of both the school board and city council meets quarterly and occasionally more often to discuss items of joint interest. At the December 8 meeting, the topic of discussion involved the unintended consequences of marijuana legalization. The steering committee heard from City Attorney Jim Barlow, Police Chief Trevor Whipple, South Burlington High School drug counselor Mariah Larkin, and three individuals from Colorado, where marijuana has been legalized.
The impetus for organizing the meeting came after City Attorney Jim Barlow returned from a conference in Colorado where the consequences of marijuana legislation were discussed, including land use issues, fire prevention, permitting, housing, and public safety. Barlow left the conference wondering, “Are we going to have the same breadth of issues if the bill currently in the [VT] house is passed?”
Barlow referenced the Rand report commissioned by Governor Peter Shumlin to take a balanced look at the pros and cons of marijuana legalization. The report became available to the public last year. According to the report, marijuana use in Vermont is among the highest in the nation with 80,000 past month users self-reporting. Barlow said that demand from outside the state would increase if legalization were to occur, to the 2.5 million users within a 200-mile radius of the state.
Kevin Bommer, Deputy Director of the Colorado Municipal League (Colorado’s equivalent of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns) joined the meeting via Skype. He gave an overview of how the law works in his state and explained that every municipality can opt in or opt out of having marijuana sold in their communities. He also touched upon the resources the state has had to utilize beyond criminal enforcement in order to make sure establishments are licensed. Bommer recommend officials in Vermont ask several questions when considering legalization such as whether there is adequate statewide assistance for enforcement, determining taxation rates, and regulating what have been coined “edibles” (snacks such as cookies or gummy worms that contain marijuana). Bommer expressed that clear packaging and labeling of these edibles needs to be a high priority.
Bommer also noted that every available warehouse space has been acquired by marijuana growing operations. While home growing is allowed, it is capped at six plants.
Police Chief Trevor Whipple attended sessions on marijuana legalization at the international chiefs of police conference where he attended. In 2014, Whipple said there were two arrests in South Burlington for marijuana possession and three arrests in 2015 so far. During his session, he learned that Colorado police departments have been diverting resources to maintain facilities since many are not adequately secured. “I don’t want to get into a situation where we need the resources and we don’t have them,” Whipple said.
Marco Vasquez, the Chief of Police in Erie, Colorado joined the meeting via Skype as well and said that he predicts marijuana “will be the big tobacco of the 21st century because when you increase availability and increase public acceptance, it’s very difficult to keep out of the hands of youth.” He admitted that crime is up, but it’s difficult to prosecute marijuana related crimes because it’s legal. Other concerns for Vasquez included the increase in school expulsions for marijuana violations. Current use among 12-17 year olds is at 11.16 percent vs. 7.15 percent nationally. He also cited instances of explosions in warehouses due to the THC extraction process. There were 40 explosions and 30 injuries in 2014.
Mariah Larkin said she had reached out to Colorado schools to find out the biggest impacts of legalization and many cited the abundance of edibles. In some cases, a cookie could have ten servings of marijuana in it, whereas the Vermont legislation is proposing each packaged edible only contain a single serving. Larkin said she felt the strong wellness policy the school already has in place would help to be a deterrent. One of the educators Larkin spoke with said that there has been a cultural shift around marijuana “because students see parents doing it and it’s legal so it must be ok.”
Christina Harms, a former public school teacher and private school administrator has been with the Colorado School Safety Resource Center since 2009 and has served as Director since 2012. Harms gave an audio PowerPoint that talked about the effects marijuana can have on the adolescent brain and provided an infographic on where marijuana money has gone. The first $40 million in taxes went to upgrade schools, but Harms said that only made a small dent since by 2018, $17.8 billion will be needed to upgrade their schools. In addition, 25 schools received grants to hire more nurses and mental health providers. South Burlington School Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald asked if this need for additional staff was related to legalization. Harms said no, there was a need to hire them regardless of legalization since Colorado ranks 48th out of 50 states on per pupil spending. “Property taxes are very low . . . we spend very little on our students unfortunately,” Harms said. She added that anecdotally, they are hearing more complaints from teachers about students not being as focused in class and bringing marijuana products in their lunch boxes.
After the presentation, the steering committee had a chance to respond. School board member Martin LaLonde pointed out that the presentations had been very one sided and added that an important next step would be hearing from the supporters of the legislation. “What is the rationale for proceeding? It would make for more powerful advocacy if we understand both sides of the debate,” he said. While LaLonde admitted from a school perspective it would likely be difficult to change their minds, he would still be interested in hearing from someone who would convince them otherwise.
Councilor Meaghan Emery said the presentations gave her much more insight. The idea of edibles in schools concerned her the most. “That’s a showstopper for me,” Emery said, “It’s irresponsible for entrepreneurship to take precedence over public health issues . . . I’m in favor of dropping the bill and I’m willing to lobby for that.”
Council Chair Pat Nowak agreed, citing packaging concerns, explosions, and the necessity around additional public safety resources. “We have a moral obligation not to bring the legislation forward this year,” Nowak said, “If this went through, I would hope South Burlington would opt out . . . that’s my personal opinion.”
Senator and current candidate for Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, the lead sponsor of H227, said he was shocked by the presentations from Colorado. He said people have the misconception that the bill was introduced to raise money when that is not the case. Zuckerman explained that marijuana is already widely accessible but isn’t being regulated. “It could be laced with other things,” Zuckerman said. He cautioned the steering committee against drawing conclusions based solely on the presentations they had seen that evening.
Cathy Sheffield, another South Burlington resident was passionately against legalization saying that it would be opening a “Pandora’s box” and would only cause issues. “This isn’t a forward thinking scenario,” Sheffield said.
Fitzgerald said the board was open to hearing additional information and said that the current steering committee meeting was not designed to develop opinions, but to be informational. She said, “Do we want to develop a position on the current legislation? Schools are already being challenged to provide a lot of social services . . . we need a planful response going forward.” Fitzgerald suggested a follow up meeting between herself, Superintendent David Young, City Manager Kevin Dorn, and Pat Nowak to gauge their respective bodies’ interest in pursuing a legislative response as well as planning for a panel to hear opposing viewpoints.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent