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Reefer Madness 2008? 

Inside Track

If one thing can be said with certainty about the 40-year “War on Drugs,” it’s that it’s been a great success for those in the business of selling illegal drugs. It’s also been a great success for those who construct and operate the prisons and jails where millions of nonviolent, illegal drug users have been incarcerated.

But there’s no evidence we can find that shows treating drug abuse as a crime rather than a health problem has been effective in protecting American society as a whole from the ravages of drug abuse.

Sad but true. Even “reefer madness,” which was “documented” way back in 1938 in the cult classic film of the same name, still shows signs of life.

This winter the Vermont Legislature is making a courageous attempt to “get real” regarding our drug laws — particularly laws relating to the “evil weed,” marijuana.

The Vermont House has overwhelmingly passed a bill that would allow Vermont farmers to apply for licenses to grow hemp. It’s valuable as a food crop, a fiber crop and a fuel crop. Unfortunately, since 1958, Uncle Sam has considered it a Schedule 1 narcotic, no different than heroin or cocaine.

Honest.

That’s because hemp is of the same Cannabis sativa plant species as marijuana. The difference is that hemp is very low in THC, the active ingredient that gets users high. As the agriculture committee learned, there’s no way one can grow hemp and pot together.

One law-enforcement officer from Canada, where hemp cultivation is perfectly legal, told the House committee that a person “would have to smoke 400 pounds of hemp to get a smile on their face.”

“An Act Relating to Industrial Hemp,” H.267, passed the House Agriculture Committee unanimously, 11-0, and was approved by the full House on a 127-9 vote. It’s now in the Vermont Senate.

No one expects the bill to face much difficulty winning Senate approval.

After all, while the House approved hemp legislation, the “upper body” overwhelmingly approved a bill that would let Vermont’s tens of thousands of marijuana smokers know they would not face criminal prosecution for possession of a bong or baggie.

Under S.238 — “An Act Related to Penalties for Possession of Marijuana” — a Vermonter caught with less than 1 ounce would have the right to choose “court diversion,” and would not get a criminal record for it.

Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, one of a minority of his generation who claims to have never smoked grass, has kept an open mind. After all, exactly 30 years ago, when he was a young member of the Vermont House, the current Gov. Scissorhands voted “yes” on a bill that would have decriminalized possession of an ounce or less of pot in the Green Mountain State. It passed the House but died in the Senate.

Who would have thought that four decades after Woodstock, marijuana would still be a Schedule 1 illegal drug, and same-sex couples would enjoy marriage rights in several states, including Vermont?

Meanwhile, this year’s public-policy debate under the Golden Dome over the absurd and ineffective War on Drugs has allowed many Statehouse players the opportunity to get real about their own use of pot.

In recent days, everyone from the speaker of the House to the chairman of the judiciary committee to an attorney and lobbyist for a leading environmental group has admitted on the record that they’ve done what most of us (including weekly columnists) have done. In fact, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, pot is the third most popular recreational drug in America, after booze and tobacco. In the past year, according to NORML, 20 million Americans have smoked grass.

Also in recent days Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington responded in the affirmative when asked at her Friday “Brown Bagger” if she had ever smoked pot.

“In college,” said Symington.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bill Lippert also admitted to having toked up in the past. “In college,” said Lippert, “and a few years after.”

Fortunately for them, they did not get busted, as one respected Statehouse lobbyist did during his college days.

Anthony Iarrapino is an attorney and lobbyist for the Conservation Law Foundation. Prior to his current post at CLF, he clerked for a Vermont Supreme Court justice. Before that he graduated magna cum laude from Boston College and picked up his law degree at Vermont Law School. But while in college, Anthony was busted for possession of a small amount of marijuana in Manchester, Massachusetts. His arrest on a simple-possession charge, he told us, “led to a months-long entanglement with the criminal justice system, lawyers, prosecutors and defense attorneys.” He referred to it as “assembly-line justice.”

After a couple months, he said, “and a successful completion of probation — again, a burden on the system — the case was dismissed without a finding.”

Attorney Iarrapino told us last week that he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on S.238 — not on behalf of his employer but as an individual Vermonter — because he felt this is an area where the government simply doesn’t belong.

“When intelligent, productive, otherwise law-abiding adults choose to engage in something that is not harming other members of the public in the privacy of their own homes,” said Anthony the Attorney, “it’s not productive for government to play a role in getting involved in those personal decisions that people make.”

On balance, he said, “I think our drug policy has been more harmful than helpful in keeping kids away from drugs that can really mess up your life. I am a productive and law-abiding member of society, and the fact that I’ve smoked pot does not stop me from being that.”

It would be “ridiculous to not think,” said Anthony, that a significant number of Vermonters and other Americans engage in casual marijuana use. And that “casual use,” he said, “is much less harmful than the drinking I’ve seen many members of Vermont’s political establishment engage in in this town several nights a week. That’s legal. Casual marijuana use isn’t, and a lot of people are left trying to figure out why there’s a difference.”

Hard to argue with that, but some folks do anyway, as demonstrated by Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie’s Statehouse presser last Friday. He was joined by Thomas Lauzon, the mayor of Barre City, and Debby Haskins, executive director of the Association of Student Assistance Professionals of Vermont.

“My biggest concern,” said Doobie-Doo, is that S.238, the marijuana bill, “ties the hands of prosecutors and says we’re going to reduce the amount of tools that you have in your tool box. I think it’s wrong.” The legislation, said Dubie, is “a step in the wrong direction.”

The Doobster did his best to link marijuana to hard drugs, saying it was time to call for a “comprehensive review” of our drug policy, “in light of the violent outbreak of crime that was drug-related in Rutland.”

Mayor Lauzon echoed those sentiments, saying he did not think it was “reefer madness” to “take a step back and look at the whole problem.”

Haskins echoed those sentiments, saying, “Reefer Madness was based on lies and scare tactics. Today’s research is based on fact and brain scans,” she added.

“The number-one health risk for marijuana is what it can potentially do to you physically,” said Haskins. “It’s a smokable drug, it’s got 66 carcinogens and, in fact, it can lead you to other substances.” But Haskins told reporters in the Cedar Creek Room with Lite-Gov Dubie at her side, “It’s the environment that you’re in” when smoking marijuana that is also a danger, because it’s what she termed a “very risky, high-risk place.”

Haskins said she asked five school counselors the other day the number-one issue they have in dealing with kids.

And she learned that eighth-graders believe marijuana is not harmful. “They see alcohol as more harmful,” Haskins said.

Asked what’s the most harmful drug facing Vermont’s youth today, Lauzon replied, “I think they’re all harmful.”

Even aspirin and caffeine?

Yes.

But one doesn’t get a criminal record for taking two aspirin or drinking a cup of coffee, eh?

It’s 2008, folks, and “reefer madness” is still among us.

**********

Leahy’s Reaction? — Pot smoking came into vogue in the late 1960s and early 1970s in America, when today’s gray- and white-haired baby boomers were the “younger generation.” Patrick Leahy, now Vermont’s long-serving senior U.S. Senator, was working in the only other job he’s had in 40 years — Chittenden County State’s Attorney. The legend in the local historic record is that pot-smoking was, for all intents and purposes, “legal” in Burlington when Pat Leahy was calling the shots at the prosecutor’s office.

But St. Patrick bobbed and weaved with gusto Monday when asked at his Montpeculiar presser for his view on the hemp and marijuana legislation currently moving through the Vermont Legislature.

First, Sen. Leahy feigned total ignorance.

“You know,” he told reporters, “I don’t even know what’s in the House bill, other than seeing a headline sometimes in my press briefings in the morning.”

Then he claimed it would be improper for someone like him, with a job on Capitol Hill in Washington, to tell the folks under the Golden Dome in Montpelier how to act.

“I’ve gone for years on the basis of not trying to tell the Vermont Legislature what to do, in the vain hope they return the compliment,” said St. Patrick.

He’s a smoothie, isn’t he?

The purpose of the presser was to announce the $1 million grant he had secured for the Vermont Drug Task Force. Major Tom L’Esperance of the Vermont State Police stood at his side.

P.S. Afterward, Sen. Leahy and wife Marcelle Leahy unveiled a radio spot they’d cut for their favorite candidate for the White House — Barack Obama.

**********

The Horse Race — Speaking of presidential election politics, it’s hard to avoid the rising surge of support for Barack Obama in Vermont. Even the 20-year-old auto-glass repairman who just replaced our cracked windshield said he’s paying attention to the election and is on the Obama bandwagon. Why?

Because “Obama is down to earth,” said Justin Smith of Georgia, Vermont. The color of the candidate’s skin, he said, isn’t an issue. “It doesn’t matter,” he said.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, seems like “more of the same” old Bill Clinton, Smith told us.

On Saturday, traffic was brisk and the mood upbeat at the Obama table on Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace. Obama campaign volunteer Laura Cary of South Burlington described the action as “Fantastic. Overwhelming. Unbelievable.”

On Sunday, the Hillary Clinton for President crew had its table on Church Street, too. Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, a Clinton supporter, was out there. She conceded to Ch. 3 that Hillary “is in a tough race now, there’s no question about it. But I still believe she has a great chance of winning the nomination.” Queen Madeleine did acknowledge, however, that Obama is “a very attractive candidate,” and “probably will do well in Vermont.”

Probably?

At present, we know of no political insider who thinks Hillary can take Vermont.

If one can’t win over a 20-year-old auto-glass repairman, one’s chances are not good.

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Bio:
Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.

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