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Takeaways From Delegation's Colorado Marijuana Research Trip

Taylor Dobbs
To gain a deeper understanding of what legalizing marijuana in Vermont might look like, Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, shown here in December, traveled to Colorado with a delegation of state officials, advocates and opponents.

To legalize or not to legalize marijuana? That's been the question on many Vermonters' minds of late. To help them answer it, some here have been looking west, to Colorado, where recreational pot has now been legal for a year.

A delegation of Vermont public officials and advocates, opponents and law enforcement just returned from a marijuana fact-finding trip to Colorado. For a debrief, VPR visited the office of Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan.

On what the delegation saw and learned in Colorado

"It really was a fascinating trip. We packed a lot into two and a half days, from meeting with law enforcement officials to grow operations, a retail store, an edible facility. And I think ... the first question we have to ask ourselves is, 'Why do we want to do this? Why do we want to legalize or not legalize marijuana?' 

"Secondly, Vermont has a very different process in passing laws than Colorado, which I think is a good thing. They passed that law without having a regulatory system in place. So they really put the cart before the horse, in my opinion, and I think that was the biggest problem that I have with their process."

"It really wasn't the question of, 'Should adults be allowed to smoke marijuana?' The question was, 'How do you regulate it in a way that's responsible?'" - Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan

On what life is like for Coloradans

"Frankly, some of the best conversations were sitting in restaurants, talking to regular people. And what we heard pretty consistently was this: You know, I don't care if people, adults, smoke. But how it's been implemented, how we regulate it, has been a problem. There was kind of this left-right libertarian streak that I detected out there, which I think is pretty consistent with Vermont, frankly. So it really wasn't the question of, 'Should adults be allowed to smoke marijuana?' The question was, 'How do you regulate it in a way that's responsible?' The other thing that I heard out there from parents is, at least they're talking to their kids more about this issue. And in their words, having a more honest conversation, as opposed to saying, don't [break] the law ... And I think that's a productive conversation."

On the need to regulate legal pot

"How do you do it in a responsible way? Again, it gets back to the details about the regulatory system. Where is it housed in Vermont? What is the tax structure? Are we going to earmark the money to prevention? To youth programs? What we do on unlicensed dealers? How do we do it in terms of people exporting marijuana out of Vermont, where in our neighboring states it may remain illegal? All these question have to be asked, and frankly they're more important than, 'Do you think it should be legalized?' The details really matter, and that's something I'm taking away from this trip."

On disconcerting edibles packaging

"I was in the marijuana retail store, and at first, you know, my sense was, this is like any other health store. And I wasn't offended. But then when I was looking at the packaging, and knowing that they just passed a law about the distinction between a medicinal product with a higher THC content versus a recreational [product], where I couldn't tell the difference. I thought that was troubling. I am a father, I have kids. The edibles, I don't think, should be marketed. You've got companies that are saying that they would not advertise to children, but the edibles are coming in the form of chocolate bars and gummy bears. We have to be aware of this."

"I'm not against it, but I can't say that I'm ready to legalize it today. Because I think the details matter."

On shifting feelings about legalization

"I'll tell you, Monday, when I was out there, I felt strongly one way. But by the end of Tuesday, my position had almost reversed ... We went to a grow operation on Monday, and the individual who was running this facility was an entrepreneur. Very honest, very transparent. And I was impressed by the operation. On Tuesday, we met with the edible company, went to the edible facility, and I was not impressed. In fact, I was taken aback. And it raised a lot of concerns for me.

"On Tuesday, we also spoke with the regulators, which raised a lot of serious questions for me. The chief regulator asked a question, she said, 'You have to answer this question first. Why do you want to do this?' And I'm not sure we've answered that question in Vermont yet. So I'm not against it, but I can't say that I'm ready to legalize it today. Because I think the details matter."

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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