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Impact on youth focus of Brattleboro pot meeting

Testimony favors marijuana legalization, but many express concerns about how legalization affects children

BRATTLEBORO—For those keeping score, Monday’s public meeting at Brattleboro Union High School was a clear win for those who favor marijuana legalization.

A steady stream of legalization proponents stepped to the podium, telling members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee why they believe decriminalizing pot is a good idea from a social and economic standpoint.

But even among those enthusiasts, there were frequent questions and concerns about juveniles.

Some spoke about the need to ensure that legalized marijuana stays out of kids’ hands, while others commented on the drug’s effects on developing brains.

Officials said that’s becoming a common issue in the marijuana debate statewide.

“A lot of people are fearful of what will happen to kids. That’s the majority of the opposition,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and the committee’s chairman. “And I think that’s a legitimate concern: Will legalization, no matter how conservative an approach we take, lead to more use by kids?”

“I’m not a scientist,” Sears added. “But I’ve heard a lot of concern about brain development and other issues, not just among youth but among young adults. And that’s something we didn’t hear much until this year.”

The next logical step?

Following the legislature’s 2011 approval of medical marijuana dispensaries and its 2013 decriminalization of small amounts of the drug, some see outright legalization as the next logical step and as a potential revenue source for the state. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, a member of the Judiciary Committee, has said it makes no sense that alcohol and tobacco are legal and regulated while pot is not.

But there are several legalization proposals and many concerns. Those worries include questions about how to police stoned drivers and how legalization might boost pot use — especially among minors.

The committee on Monday held public meetings on the issue in Bennington, Brattleboro, and Springfield.

In Brattleboro, Sears told a crowd numbering more than 40 that his committee is considering two legalization bills — S.95, introduced by Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, and S.241, introduced by White and Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia.

The full text of both bills can be found by searching for the bill numbers at legislature.vermont.gov.

The only speaker to comment specifically on the differences between those bills was Brattleboro attorney Jean Anne Kiewel, who said she believes S.95 lends itself to monopolies and “corporate control of weed,” while S.241 is “the better bill.”

Kiewel said she overall strongly supports legalization. While now primarily a family law attorney, she reached back a few decades to two criminal cases in which she said she had been involved. In both, Windham County juries had declined to render guilty verdicts in pot-possession cases.

“The people have been leading on this for quite some time,” Kiewel said. “I hope the Senate Judiciary Committee is going to join the people in leading the legislature on decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana.”

Many echoed Kiewel’s sentiments. Among them was Carl Christianson, a Weathersfield teacher and former biomedical researcher who said Vermont could lead the way in furthering studies of pot’s medical benefits.

Both Sears and Christianson cited Gov. Peter Shumlin’s principles for marijuana legalization, which the governor laid out in his state of the state address earlier this month.

Those criteria include imposing a pot tax low enough to eliminate the drug’s black market, using some of that tax revenue to expand addiction-prevention programs, boosting enforcement capacity for impaired drivers, and banning the sale of marijuana edibles pending further research.

“I absolutely support common-sense legalization, and I think that the governor’s key principles are certainly within the realm of possibility for ensuring that we do this in a very constructive way,” Christianson said.

Keeping pot from kids’ reach

Shumlin’s other key objective — keeping marijuana away from kids — was a big topic at the Brattleboro forum.

Deane Wilson, who manages Brattleboro’s medical marijuana dispensary, told lawmakers that he was speaking not in that role but as a native Vermonter when voicing a pro-legalization stance.

But the former Brattleboro Area Middle School staff member also is concerned about pot use among minors.

“There should be education for students,” Wilson said. “I am very much against young people doing marijuana, or other drugs for that matter, until their brains fully mature.”

Brattleboro resident Alex Beck said legalized marijuana could be a “new and innovative revenue stream” for Vermont. But he’s also hoping no juveniles find their way into that stream.

“I think that no one under the age of 21 should have access [to marijuana],” Beck said. “But one of the reasons why I think our young people who do use cannabis end up in far deeper [drug] trouble is because the same person selling the cannabis is selling harder drugs.”

For that reason, Beck believes the state’s legalization and regulation of pot may decrease pot use among minors and lessen its status as a gateway drug.

Area psychiatrist Lesley Fishelman doesn’t share Beck’s conclusion. She cited a variety of statistics tying marijuana use to drinking and prescription-drug abuse among youth.

“I think this very much impacts this whole younger generation,” Fishelman told the committee. “And by selling this, the state is essentially authorizing this kind of use of an intoxicant.”

Fishelman was one of only two people testifying who explicitly said lawmakers should not legalize marijuana.

“This affects the Vermont brand, and we should be very, very careful about what we’re saying,” she said. “We should not be seen as a state that condones or wants to celebrate the use of marijuana.”

Brattleboro psychiatrist Neil Senior took a somewhat softer stance, arguing that lawmakers should use the legalization debate as a chance to “align alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana in terms of regulation.”

Of the three proposals he presented to the committee, the one Senior favors most would attach health and birth-defect warnings to tobacco and marijuana, would make the minimum age 21 for use of either substance, and would ban the use of either in public places.

“There are clear health effects [for marijuana use],” Senior said after the hearing. “Don’t legalize it without those kinds of warnings, and without controlling secondhand smoke.”

Like others, Senior seemed most concerned about the effects of pot on young people.

“It appears that the developing brain is much more vulnerable to marijuana than the mature brain,” Senior told the committee.

The Brattleboro hearing took less than an hour. As committee members packed up to move on to Springfield, Sears said he had found the day’s first two meetings useful.

“Anytime you have a discussion going on amongst Vermonters, and you can get out and listen to Vermonters [...] you’re going to learn things that you don’t hear just sitting in a committee room in Montpelier,” he said.

Sears added that his committee will be finished debating the pot bills by the end of January.

“For me personally, it will all come to down to whether or not I believe we can regulate it safely, and whether we can, as a state, control it,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #340 (Wednesday, January 20, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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