Bravo! But wait a minute. Those are not the bold words of the Democratic governor of Vermont, Howard Dean. Rather, they were delivered two months ago at the State Capitol in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And the governor, Gary Johnson, is a Republican, not a Democrat.
Many who are threatened by Gov. Johnsons straight talk, including Vermonts governor, portray him as some sort of kook. It aint so. Gov. Johnson is a red, white and blue self-made millionaire and an accomplished triathlete.
Last Tuesday, the New Mexico Senate passed a medical marijuana bill on a 29-12 vote. The next day, the House Commerce Committee, on a 6-1 vote, approved legislation decriminalizing possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. Two Republican senators who are physicians (as is Vermonts governor) supported the medical marijuana measure wholeheartedly.
This is not a drug issue. This is a medical issue, said one New Mexican doctor/senator.
This is really about alleviating unnecessary suffering, said another, something I went into business to help prevent.
What a different story in the Green Mountains, however, where the mindset at the top hasnt shifted since Ronald Reagan was President. Gov. Dean, who hasnt given up his national political ambition, remains firmly opposed to any change in the Drug War. Ho-Ho recently voiced his stern objection to the modest medical marijuana bill introduced into the Vermont House, calling it nothing more than a pretext for the legalization of pot something Im opposed to, he said.
Deans longtime health commissioner, Dr. Jan Carney, backed him up, saying marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to hard drugs. Most heroin junkies, said Carney, started out smoking grass. Wow. One might as easily claim carbonated cola drinks are a gateway drug, too, since 100 percent of heroin addicts previously swilled Coke or Pepsi. Obviously, reefer madness is alive and well in the Dean administration.
Dean told reporters he has no problem with prescribing THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in pill form. However, he said he objects to the delivery system smoking a joint. The tars in the smoke, he said, are damaging to human lungs. Its the healer in him that opposes any softening of the pot prohibition.
But the Drug War has totally failed to keep pot out of the hands of the citizenry, young and old. Dr. Dean cited state survey figures indicating 34 percent of Vermont ninth graders smoked pot in the previous year. Some say the real percentage is much higher.
Howard Dean, Vermonts passionate centrist, as he once described himself, is a passionate supporter of a status quo on drugs. The Chicago Tribune reported Sunday that the Drug War has left many regions of the nation with a critical shortage of prison guards for the millions of caged non- violent citizens incarcerated by a flawed, lock em up and throw away the key drug policy.
As we pointed out in this space several months ago, Vermont actually was a leader in this area 20 years ago. Thats when the Vermont Legislature passed one of the first medical marijuana laws in America. Its still on the books, too: Title 18 Sec. 4471. Problem is, no administration since has had the backbone to follow through on it. No health commissioner has ever promulgated the rules necessary to allow Vermont doctors to prescribe pot for their patients. For 20 years the law has just gathered dust while thousands of sick and dying Vermont cancer patients have suffered.
This year 20 courageous members of the Vermont House are sponsoring an update of that medical marijuana statute to make it actually work. A more diverse bunch of politicians youll never meet.
H. 364s stated purpose is to exempt seriously ill people from prosecution and prison for using medical marijuana under a medical doctors supervision. The lead sponsor is Rep. Fred Maslack (R-Poultney). Fearless Freddy is viewed by some as a right-wing gun nut with strong anti-civil-union tendencies. He calls em as he sees em.
Co-sponsors include fellow arch-conservative Rep. Neil Randall (R-Bradford) and freshman Rep. Kevin Goodridge (R-Albany). Randall is a libertarian and a pro-gun, property rights advocate, too. Goodridge is an acolyte in Rep. Nancy Sheltras conservative Six Pack choir from the Kingdom that was sent to Montpeculiar by the Almighty to repeal civil unions and Take Back Vermont!
But also filling out the unique line-up of medical marijuana supporters are all four Progressive members from Burlington David Zuckerman, Steve Hingtgen, Carina Driscoll and Bob Kiss. The far right and the far left see eye-to-eye on this issue. The in-the-middle co-sponsors include the House minority leader John Tracy (D-Burlington), Rep. Richard Howrigan (D-Fairfield), a pro-life moderate from Franklin County, and old liberal freedom fighters like Rep. Ann Seibert (D-Norwich), David Deen (D-Westminster) and Ginny Milkey (D-Brattleboro).
The co-sponsors we talked to, left, right and center, shared the heartfelt belief that government ought to remove the roadblocks that prevent sick, suffering and dying people from legally receiving relief. Many more House members told Seven Days they would have signed on as well, had the principal sponsor of H. 364 been someone other than Fearless Freddy, the controversial slate cutter from Poultney.
Rep. Maslack has done a little historical research on the Drug War in Vermont and turned up handwritten Statehouse committee minutes from February 28, 1945. That day a Mr. Middlebrook from the federal government in Washington, D.C., told 13 members of the House Public Health Committee that the Mexicans were causing a lot of trouble in the States with a narcotic known as Mary Warner. Mr. Middlebrook told the committee it was time to tighten up Vermonts narcotic laws and get all states on the same page to stave off the Mexican menace and keep Mary Warner out of Vermont!
We voted to have a bill drafted, wrote Amy R. Lane, the clerk.
At present, it doesnt look like the current House Health and Welfare Committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Koch (R-Barre) will give the medical marijuana bill the time of day. That will only change if concerned Vermonters start speaking up. (Chairman Kochs e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Like Gov. Johnson and the New Mexico Legislature, more and more people are demonstrating the political courage to challenge the disastrous Drug War. After all, it has failed to dent either the drug demand or the drug supply. Its been a Thirty Years War that has killed thousands, incarcerated millions and cost billions. Its been a Thirty Years War thats made a mockery of law and order and turned most of our kids into drug criminals at a very early age. Can we possibly go another way?
To date, eight states have already taken the leap on medical marijuana. Seven more are discussing it. And four statehouses are considering decriminalizing pot. The evidence is mounting that the times are finally changing.
Last week, while the government of New Mexico was decriminalizing, the government of Switzerland not exactly a rogue nation was moving toward legalizing marijuana. In the capital of Bern, a Swiss government-backed panel called for the legalized use and sale of marijuana for residents of the Alps. The Swiss government conceded the current ban on marijuana hasnt worked and actually may be causing increased drug use among teenagers.
Closer to home, many political leaders continue to bury their heads in the sand while grandstanding on drugs. The prime example is provided by the Rutland-area House delegations response to the drug-related violence back home.
Rep. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland Town) and 14 distinguished co-sponsors have introduced H. 214. The measure is the leading candidate for the Knee Jerk Bill of the Biennium Award. H. 214 proposes to double the jail sentences and fines for drug dealing in Vermont as if there was any jail space available.
For example, getting busted for selling more than a half-ounce of pot in Vermont would get a 10-year maximum jail sentence, instead of the current five, under Mullins thoughtful proposal.
But why be so soft on drugs? Why not make it 50 years instead of just 10? Or burn a few dealers at the stake? Chop off an arm or two. Maybe a few humane town-square hangings to get the point across?
Seriously, if the big drug dealers could vote, theyd back Mullins bill. Keeping things just the way they are keeps the worlds biggest black market thriving. And the billions in profit remain tax-free.
Confessions of a Right-Wing Journalist In the current edition of the pro-Republican, anti-everything-else online newsletter put out by James Dwinell and Libby Sternberg, Libby has posted a revealing interview with the former news director of Vermont Public Radio (VPR), Steve Young. Mr. Young departed a few months ago for a public radio operation in Cape Cod. (Read the entire interview at www.dwinell-sternberg.com).
Many, no doubt, know Lippy as the shrill sanctimonious anti-Act 60, anti-civil unions, pro-school choice commentator heard regularly on VPR. Mr. Young was VPRs news director the past five years. We recall Mr. Youngs news reports, especially his take on Act 60, as being both off the mark and off the wall.
In response to Lippys softballs, Young vents his personal right-wing frustration with Vermont. Whats he proudest of, asks Sternberg?
Believe it or not, Young cites his Act 60 coverage. No one in the Vermont media had more empathy for the states well-off gold towns than Steve. Some of the criticism he weathered, he told Lippy, came from former Reps. Paul Cillo and John Freidin and attorney Robert Gensburg, who led the fight in the Supreme Court for equal educational opportunity.
Mr. Young told Lippy quite a few people canceled their VPR memberships because of his Act 60 coverage, Gensburg among them.
Thats true, said Gensburg Monday. Theres a difference between commentary and news reporting, he said. Mr. Young didnt appear to know the difference, said Gensburg. Cillo and Freidin, the courageous architects of Act 60, told Seven Days Mr. Young never understood what the law was about. Never grasped the meaning of equity. And appeared to never want to.
News Director Youngs biggest regret?
Running the story of charges by Bernie Rome that Republican gubernatorial candidate Ruth Dwyer had made anti-Semitic remarks about the governor and members of the press. In hindsight, Young now says that was a mistake.
I think the thing that is upsetting about the political situation in Vermont as I look back on it, says Young to Lippy, is that there is a certain intolerance to conservative views.
But things have changed at VPR. Lippys still doing her fingernails-across-the-blackboard weekly screech, but at least one listener has noticed a dramatic change in VPRs news reporting.
Attorney Gensburg told Seven Days he first noticed it last Monday morning as he tuned in from his East Burke home. It was a whole different world, he said. The quality of the local news report was dramatically superior. Gensburg said he intends to sign up once again for a VPR membership based upon what hes heard in the last week.
Mr. Gensburg was unaware that Young had departed VPR and theres been a news director in charge for the past month. And unlike Mr. Young, his replacement, John Van Hoesen, is one of the most respected journalists in Vermont. A good catch for VPR.
JVH, as hes known around the newsroom, had been managing editor of the Rutland Herald the past 12 years. He told Seven Days this week that one thing hell bring to VPRs news coverage is a commitment to analytical and thoughtful coverage.
About time. Interested reporters should apply. JVH said hes hiring.