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Waiting to Inhale 

Fair Game

Published April 25, 2012 at 11:32 a.m. | Updated November 7, 2017 at 12:35 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The biggest obstacle to decriminalizing marijuana in Vermont, House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Buzzkill), may finally be seeing the grow light.

As first reported by Seven Days last week (on 4/20, no less), a bill to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana will finally get a hearing in the House.

Next year.

Gov. Peter Shumlin supports decrim, as do key members of the state Senate. But Smith has steadfastly blocked consideration of the legislation in the House because, he said, the issue needed more study. For sticking to his guns, Smith was harassed online by anonymous pot advocates who posted personal information about the Speaker and his wife on his Facebook page.

A Senate bill to lessen penalties for pot possession was still alive as of press time, but, given Smith’s opposition, its prospects for becoming law seemed doomed.

Last Friday, however, Smith revealed that he had brokered a deal with the bill’s tripartisan sponsors — Reps. Jason Lorber (D-Burlington), Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) and Adam Howard (R-Cambridge) — to advance the bill next session.

Under the deal, Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn will head a study examining the costs and benefits of decriminalizing pot in states where possession is now a civil penalty rather than a crime — such as New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut — and report back to the legislature next January. The House Judiciary Committee will then take testimony on the bill in 2013.

So what changed Smith’s mind? One theory floating around Montpelier is that Smith wouldn’t touch the issue while he was considering running for attorney general. But Smith insists that’s flat-out wrong.

“My opposition has not been political,” he says. “If I were going to run in a Democratic attorney general’s race, I wouldn’t be against decriminalization of marijuana. It wouldn’t be helpful in a Democratic primary. I’ve been pretty consistent about this even before I was thinking about running for AG.”

Smith says he wants the Department of Public Safety to answer some basic questions about how pot decrim has worked in other states: Has the rate of usage gone up or down? Have there been more arrests or fewer? Smith isn’t convinced that prosecuting pot possession is actually costing the state money, or that decriminalizing it would “free up law enforcement to do other things.”

Another objection is more personal. “I am, as a parent, concerned about the message it sends to kids,” says Smith, who has a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old.

Shumlin has adamantly opposed a study of decriminalization, going so far as to threaten to veto a bill if it contained a decrim study. His deputy chief of staff, Alex MacLean, told the Burlington Free Press, “We do not think it is necessary to study this issue. We already know what we want to do. The governor wants to decriminalize marijuana. It would be a waste of money to further study the issue.”

Apparently he’s since changed his view. How come?

“As we understand it, it’s not going to be a study per se, but Flynn has been asked to come back and provide information to lawmakers about how this is working in other states,” says press secretary Sue Allen. “We support that. It’s not a full-fledged study. It’s not an expensive proposal.”

Aren’t “information” and “study” sort of the same thing? Is this just a semantic game? Allen says there’s a “big difference.”

“We’re pulling together some information to help lawmakers,” she says. “If lawmakers want more information, we’re happy to get them more information.”

One thing Smith is not promising is a vote. That will be up to the House Judiciary Committee, he says.

Given the uncertainties, Smith’s deal might not seem like much of a victory for decrim supporters — especially since it depends upon its architects winning reelection this November. But Lorber, the bill’s lead sponsor, views it as a significant step forward.

“This was not the desired outcome, but we’ll get there,” Lorber says. “This path is not unusual. We had a similar approach when we did [same-sex] marriage. There was a summer study, and that laid the groundwork. The issues are very different, but there’s precedent.”

Lorber has already pulled together some baseline figures on the cost of prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana possession — under two ounces — in Vermont. According to a report he commissioned from the legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, the state spent more than $700,000 in fiscal year 2008 charging 801 cases of misdemeanor pot possession.

“We have limited dollars, and we should be focusing on the most serious drugs. Marijuana doesn’t even make the list, or it’s near the bottom of it,” Lorber says, before adding optimistically, “All our ducks are lined up for passage of this.”

Pro-pot senators were feeling less positive last week. Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) said legislation was tacked on to a decrim bill he adamantly opposes — one authorizing law enforcement to search prescription databases without a warrant. He likened the situation to “having the filet mignon you wanted, but only if you take the poison pill that comes with it.”

Baruth’s partner in crime — er, de-crime — on the marijuana legislation is Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), a trial attorney. He says passing marijuana decrim this year would be a “Pyrrhic victory” because the legislation is doomed in the House.

“And I’m not into Pyrrhic victories right now,” Benning says. 

Perhaps by 4/20/13, they’ll be singing a different tune — one that goes, “Decriminalize it! Don’t criticize it!”

In the meantime, the song of the summer will likely be more like, “Study it! Weigh the pros and cons of it!”

Speak of the Devil

A growing list of former government officials are coming under investigation by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for lobbying the state department to delist the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq as a terrorist group.

Fair Game readers might recall that Howard Dean was among the politicos collecting lucrative speaking fees for joining the chorus calling for the delisting of the MEK. Dean told my predecessor, Shay Totten, back in August 2011 that the MEK was a dissident group that deserved American protection, not a terrorist label, and that several European countries had already removed it from their terror lists.

Critics have called the MEK a “cult” that mistreats women. In the 1970s, it was linked to the killing of six American citizens.

NBC News investigative reporter Michael Isikoff has revealed that firms representing at least three former government officials have received subpoenas for records relating to MEK speaking fees: former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, former FBI director Louis Freeh and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton. All three had reportedly collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees. Federal law bans any financial dealings with terrorist groups.

So is Dean being swept up in the dragnet?

Apparently not.

Kate O’Connor, a former Dean aide, tells Fair Game in an email that, “As of now, Howard hasn’t received any subpoenas, he’s not under investigation and therefore, he won’t have any comment. Hope that helps.”

As of now? That kinda makes it sound like Dean is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Unfortunately, O’Connor wouldn’t make Dean available to answer questions, so we’ll just have to wonder. And watch to see if the subpoena trail leads to Vermont.

Bearly Legal

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s nude encounter with hungry black bears that went for his bird feeders has become the stuff of political legend.

Since the Valley News first broke the story two weeks ago, the gov has retold the tale of his backyard bear battle with any reporter who will listen, and the story has gone viral on the web.

But video of the encounter has not. And if the gov’s office has anything to say about it, you won’t be watching it on YouTube.

Yes, the governor himself shot a few minutes of video of the bear breach on his smartphone. He’s even shown it to select news outlets.

But he won’t release it — even though he shot it on a taxpayer-funded phone.

Out of curiosity, Fair Game put in a public-records request for the video. Associated Press reporter Wilson Ring had already done the same thing.

The governor’s legal counsel, Sarah London, denied both, saying the video isn’t a public record because it was not “produced or acquired in the course of agency business.” Plus, she said, they have security concerns about releasing a video that shows the governor’s private residence.

“If you would like more information about the governor’s bear encounter, however, please feel free to follow up with Sue Allen,” London wrote to Fair Game, referring to Shumlin’s press secretary.

London argues that not all records produced on taxpayer-funded devices are public. Why? Because most courts have ruled they don’t have to be. By way of comparison, she says a government employee’s grocery list wouldn’t become a public record just because it was written on taxpayer-funded paper.

Allen confirmed that the video does not show any gubernatorial junk, so that’s not the reason they’re withholding it.

So what does the forbidden video actually show? One of the reporters who viewed it, Valley News political editor John Gregg, describes it thus: “It’s dark. It’s bears in the dark.”

They’re not the only ones in the dark!

Media Notes

File this one under “O” for “oops.”

The Associated Press had to offer a correction to a story about a big antinuclear rally that took place in Brattleboro on April 15, at which more than 1000 demonstrators called for the leak-prone Vermont Yankee plant to be shut down.

The unbylined story, which ran on the front of the Vermont section in the Burlington Free Press, quoted a bystander who happened upon the rally saying she had mixed feelings about decommissioning the aging reactor.

“When the school distributed iodine pills to the teachers, it was a little bit of a shock, because I hadn’t really thought about it that much,” Nancy Olsen, a 65-year-old school teacher from Putney, told the AP. The reporter said she was referring to “the pills that were handed out at Brattleboro Union High School during last year’s tritium leak to counteract the radiation poisoning.”

As the AP’s correction stated, the tritium leak was in 2009 and early 2010, not last year. More importantly, it did not, in fact, cause radiation poisoning.

The correction goes on, “Also, the Vermont Health Department distributes potassium iodide — not iodine — pills in case of a leak of a different type of radiation and did not distribute pills for the tritium leak.”


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About The Author

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2012, and the news editor from 2012-2013.


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