Column: Be Wary on Pot, Vermont

For the Valley News
Monday, March 07, 2016
Two groups hung out outside my high school during breaks. The first was made up of kids taking drags on cigarettes, trying to look cool. The second was the “stoners.” Oh wow, man. Bloodshot eyes, long hair (both girls and guys), lots of denim, not a lot of intellectual give-and-take, if you know what I mean.

While the effects of cigarette smoking wouldn’t be seen in the smokers for decades (they now appear nightly in hard-to-watch anti-smoking ads on TV), the effects of marijuana were immediate. It’s not for nothing that it’s called dope.

Now the state of Vermont is wrestling with making recreational marijuana use legal. Critics say the state shouldn’t be promoting legalizing a mind-altering drug while simultaneously fighting an epidemic of opiate abuse, an act that seems as hypocritical as the state of New Hampshire selling liquor on state highways where DOT roadside signs read: “Don’t Drink and Drive!”

Hypocrisy is just the start of the problems. One of the biggest problems with this legislation is that while the bill allows possession of a certain amount of marijuana, there is no standard for what it means to be impaired by marijuana usage. As an EMT, I’ve seen my share of drug- and alcohol-induced incidents and accidents. I have seen motorists driving under the influence of varying amounts of alcohol and/or numerous types of drugs, including marijuana. Some are miraculously able to navigate paths they probably couldn’t when in their right minds; some cause accidents and injury; some cause fatalities.

It’s easy to convict someone of driving while intoxicated because we can determine when a driver has gone beyond the legal limit. First, the legal limit for alcohol exists — .08.

Also, there is a way to test for that number — a blood test — that will stand up in court as evidence.

It doesn’t work that way with marijuana. There is no scientific consensus. There is no legal standard. Some police officers are being trained as drug recognition experts (DREs), who have special training to make them more credible as witnesses in court, but not every officer is a DRE. There is a pilot program testing devices that use saliva samples, but lacking a set number to look for, they can only record that there is a detectable level of the drug in a person, not that the person is impaired.

As of now in Vermont and New Hampshire, the presence of marijuana is illegal. A driver causing injury or death can be prosecuted just for the presence of the drug.

If marijuana is legalized before a legal standard for impairment is established, wouldn’t it be a shame if the state could not convict someone, especially in the case of an injury or fatality, because there is no standard of proof? Legalizing marijuana before determining that standard and having a way to measure it is putting the cart before the horse.

There could be unintended ripple effects with legalization in Vermont. They wouldn’t stop at the border. Just as Massachusetts drivers cross the border and buy New Hampshire’s tax-free liquor, and Vermont motorcyclists cross the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge into New Hampshire and take off their helmets, there’s nothing that will stop New Hampshire residents from buying and using Vermont’s new tax-revenue source. What’s available in Vermont won’t stay just in Vermont.

Since legalizing pot, Colorado has seen the emergence of so-called “pot tourists” who journey there and take marijuana back home. Neighboring states Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado in 2014, arguing that marijuana from Colorado is spilling across state lines. If Vermont legalizes marijuana, New Hampshire can look forward to similar incidents.

Colorado is serving as a good testing ground for marijuana legalization. It isn’t often that legislators can get a sneak preview of what legalization might look like. Vermont should be paying attention.

One federal study found that after legalization, Colorado had an increase of marijuana-induced traffic deaths, hospital visits, school suspensions, lab explosions and pet poisonings. The number of drivers testing positive for marijuana increased 100 percent from 2007 to 2012, with marijuana-related fatalities doubling from 37 to 78. This is good evidence that a standard of proof of impairment is a necessity before even considering legalization.

Legislation does more than change state laws; it also sets the tone for the state. What message is the Legislature trying to send? By legalizing marijuana without a legal standard for what constitutes impairment, critics could say that the state is more concerned with tax dollars than safety. Legalizing a drug that is smoked (and only smoked – edible marijuana is prohibited in the Vermont bill) while simultaneously discouraging smoking almost everywhere in public sends a mixed message. And legalizing a mind-altering drug while fighting a drug epidemic isn’t clarifying, it’s confusing.

There is no urgency on this issue. Nothing prohibits the state from taking time to wrestle with the ramifications legalized marijuana would bring, both for Vermont and for its neighbors.

Margaret Drye lives in Plainfield.