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The Highs And Lows

Vermont Studies Legalizing Pot

As the country gradually liberalizes marijuana laws — pot is now legal in Colorado and Washington state and medicinal marijuana is allowed in 23 states and the District of Columbia — the debate goes on over whether cannabis could be a tax boon for states, poses a danger to users and society, or both.

That debate could go on ad infinitum, like for certain pot users, a session of listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. But slowly, and surely, Americans are lessening support for criminal sanctions for recreational marijuana use.

Given the extended argument involving the pro and anti sides, which rivals the gun debate as a long-running quarrel in which so much is said and so little settled, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin is showing good judgment in commissioning a Rand Corp. study of the costs and benefits of legalizing marijuana. Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding said a comprehensive study will set the stage for debate by lawmakers during the 2015 session. “Having an organization with a reputation as solid as Rand conduct this research analysis,’’ said Spauling, “will allow the Legislature to have a real conversation based on objective information and facts on what is a pretty significant policy decision.’’ Rand will estimate usage, the potential black market, and look at effects on public health and highway safety, for example.

The research needn’t be solely hypothetical, since Colorado and Washington state are conducting a case study even now, as federal prosecutors stand on the sidelines, (They have signaled they would intervene if too much state-sanctioned marijuana gets in the hands of kids, or gangs, or is trafficked between states.)

Will taxed legal pot be the cash cow that some predict, or a bust? The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Colorado’s Department of Revenue took in $11.3 million in four months, less than advocates had predicted. Denver Post editorial page editor Vincent Carroll offered an explanation: Medical marijuana remains considerably cheaper in Colorado, because it’s taxed at a lower rate than the newly legal recreational pot. Sales to people who have obtained a doctor’s note, something which Carroll says “has been notoriously easy to secure,’’ remain brisk. Perhaps of interest to Vermont: 90 percent of marijuana sales in mountain-resort areas have been to out-of-staters. New Hampshire, which fears an addiction to broad-based taxes, and has long preferred raising money by hawking liquor, lottery tickets and fireworks to visitors, take note.

One of the reasons Prohibition was lifted in 1933 was the allure of the excise tax on alcohol sales. For politicians with ailing budgets, pot sales could provide medicinal tax revenue.

In any case, there’s money to be made and social costs to calculate. Better for Vermont to begin with data from a source that has no stake in the outcome. The verdict — be it buzzkill or bonanza — should come from an unbiased source.