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Debate Over Marijuana Legalization Centers On The Risks Posed To Teens

Peter Hirschfeld
Debby Haskins, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Vermont, is hoping to galvanize opposition to a bill that would legalize cannabis in Vermont.

Next week, Vermont lawmakers will begin work on a bill that would create a legal market for marijuana in the Green Mountains.

Proponents say there’s a good chance the legislation will pass in 2016, but one group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana Vermont, is looking to slow the momentum behind the legalization movement.

Audio for this piece will be available by approximately 11 am Tuesday, Oct. 27.

About 100 middle and high school students from across Vermont gathered in a hotel conference room in Montpelier on Monday.

They were in town for the fifth annual Prevention Day, an event that spotlights substance-abuse prevention efforts across the state. And the youngsters provided an apt backdrop for the launch of a new group that will try to dissuade lawmakers from making Vermont the next state to legalize marijuana.

“One of the things that we know is that when something is more available, everybody will use it. Everybody will use it more,” says Debby Haskins.

Haskins is the volunteer executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Vermont, a group looking to galvanize opposition to the legalization legislation.

Haskins and others say legalization will increase teen marijuana usage rates in Vermont – rates that are already among the highest in the nation.

Legalization proponents envision a regulatory model akin to the one Vermont uses for the distribution and sale of alcohol or tobacco, a plan that Laurie Augustyniak, coordinator of Prevention Works, call “distressing to those of us in the (abuse-prevention) field.”

“Because we know that that process doesn’t work particularly well to keep alcohol out of the hands of young people,” Augustyniak says.

Augustyniak says any policy reforms that improve teenagers’ access to cannabis will have public health impacts for decades.

“If a young person can get through the age of 18 without using alcohol or tobacco or other drugs,” says Augustyniak. “They’re likely to not have a substance abuse problem.”

Matt Simon is the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy group spearheading, and bankrolling, the push for legalization in Montpelier. Simon says no one thinks kids should be smoking pot.

"If a young person can get through the age of 18 without using alcohol or tobacco or other drugs they're likely to not have a substance abuse problem." - Laurie Augustyniak, coordinator of Prevention Works

The debate over legalization, he says, isn’t a referendum on the merits of marijuana use, by teens or anyone else. Rather Simon says the debate is about the best way to regulate a marijuana market that will continue to thrive regardless of what lawmakers do. And prohibition, according to Simon, isn’t working out so well.

“It’s merely created a situation where Vermonters are hundreds of millions of dollars into an illicit market where there is no regulation,” says Simon. “Where there is no education of consumers, where there is no guarantee of product safety.”

Simon says generating public revenue from marijuana sales will redirect money away from the unsavory actors that now control the cannabis trade. And he says it will give the state the financial wherewithal to mount more meaningful abuse-prevention tactics.

“We’ve managed in this country to dramatically reduce the amount of smoking by tens and adults, and we’ve done that without arresting a single adult for his or her choice to smoke,” Simon says.

The Senate Committee on Government Operationswill begin drafting the legalization bill at a public meeting Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Correction 4:15 p.m. 10/27/15 An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Vermont would be the third state to legalize marijuana. It would be the fifth, behind Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Recreational marijuana is also legal in Washington, D.C.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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