Marijuana Legalization School Board Discusses Legislation

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Thursday March 24, 2016

Marijuana legalization has been a hot topic in Vermont for years, but this legislative session has shed even more light on the issue as proposed legislation has now moved to the House. The main crux of the current bill is that it would set up a system for taxing and regulating marijuana and would allow those 21 years of age and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana starting in 2018. Permits would be issued for up to 30 marijuana stores where Vermonters could buy up to a half-ounce of marijuana at a time and those visiting from out of state could purchase a quarter-ounce.

Before the bill had even reached the Senate, this issue was on the radar of City Attorney Jim Barlow. His concern began after he attended a conference in Colorado where the consequences of marijuana legislation were discussed such as land use issues, fire prevention, permitting, housing, and public safety. As a result, a steering committee meeting was organized in December of 2015 to hear more about these issues. In addition to Jim Barlow, the steering committee heard from Police Chief Trevor Whipple, South Burlington High School drug counselor Mariah Larkin, and three individuals from Colorado where marijuana has been legalized.

The presentations netted strong reactions from members of the city council, some of whom went as far as to say they would actively lobby against a legalization bill. However, the school board took a measured approach, absorbed the information, and suggested, perhaps a panel be held to hear the opposing viewpoint.

School board member Martin LaLonde said “it would make for more powerful advocacy if we understood both sides of the debate.” While LaLonde admitted that 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 the board otherwise.

At the time, Senator and current Lieutenant Governor candidate David Zuckerman, the lead sponsor of H227, said that he would be glad to help organize a forum that presented an alternate viewpoint, but as months went by, details on the organization of the forum remained up in the air. Finally, at the March 16 meeting, the board received word from City Manager Kevin Dorn that a follow up forum would not be happening this year. Dorn said, “Scheduling 10 people, plus a program, is hard to start with...then you add the very busy schedule of the first three months of the year, and it got to be too much.”

Recently, the town of Essex held a discussion on the pros and cons of legalization. Board member Elizabeth Fitzgerald had a chance to look at the footage from the March 2 meeting at Essex High School and described the comments as falling into two camps: she said that some felt that “the current war on drugs is failing, so we need to do something” and other comments reflected the notion that the laundry list of concerns around legalization is becoming fairly long. Fitzgerald said that while she agrees with the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA) position statement, she would want to make sure the board’s bases were covered if they took a position; for example, taking the legislation off the table altogether until concerns were addressed, especially those brought to light by the Department of Public Health. “It’s a pretty onerous list of things to be addressed,” Fitzgerald said.

The position piece to which Fitzgerald referred was written by The Vermont School Boards Association and submitted to the legislature February 10, 2016. The document outlines their concerns, among them, findings from the Health Impact Assessment of Marijuana Regulation put out by the Vermont Department of Health. The document cites the effects of long term marijuana use on youth such as heightened anxiety, increased depressive disorders, and the possibility of altering the physical structure of the brain. Impact on academic outcomes such as high school graduation rates were also noted. The VSBA asked the General Assembly to consider these findings and if they decide to legalize marijuana, provide schools with the resources necessary for education, prevention, and child protection and welfare.

According to LaLonde, the VSBA will be testifying soon on the section of the bill pertaining to youth. There will also be an opportunity for a public comment period March 31 from 5:30-6:30. While LaLonde said it’s hard to know at this juncture where the legislation will go, he feels that the VSBA has hit on issues the board would want covered.

LaLonde said he would also be sitting down, as a legislator, with South Burlington High School Principal Patrick Burke, to get a feel for what he’s seeing in the schools. While there wasn’t a formal vote by the board, nor a motion on the table, members agreed to have LaLonde informally share the board’s commentary with the judiciary in lieu of a formal position at this time.

Public hearing on S.241

An act relating to the regulation of marijuana

The House Committees on Judiciary and on Government Operations will hold a public hearing on Thursday, March 31, 2016, starting at 5:00 pm. The hearing will be held in the House Chamber at the State House. Members of the public interested in testifying regarding the above bill may sign up 30 minutes prior to the hearing outside the House Chamber. Each person will have 2 minutes to testify, and the hearing will adjourn at 7:00 pm. Due to the time frame, please note that everyone may not be able to testify.

SOURCE:  Corey Burdick. Correspondent