The Study That Could Shape the Future of Marijuana in Vermont and the Rest of the Country
Vermont is poised to potentially make marijuana reform history. While two states have already legalized marijuana and two more states could join them this November, in all these states the issue has advanced through the initiative process. Pro-legalization groups wrote their own laws and collected signatures to put them on the ballot, but that tactic can’t be copied in most states. Vermont, on the other hand, is positioned to be the first state to legalize marijuana via state legislature.
Given that the federal government and over half the states don’t allow ballot initiatives, how Vermont proceeds could set the actual precedent for most of the country.
Vermont lawmakers are preparing for a serious discussion about legalization at the beginning of next year and recently commissioned a study by the RAND Corporation of its potential implications. The study should play a big role in shaping the debate locally and potentially beyond.
I interviewed Beau Kilmer, the study’s leader and co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, who is really excited to be working on such a potentially important project despite the very tight January deadline. While it is still in the very early stages, Kilmer is planning for the study to be comprised of three main pieces:
1) Assessing the current marijuana landscape in Vermont – The first part will provide a very good idea of where things stand. It will assess factors like the current rate of use, the size of the black market, and the cost of current enforcement. “That is not only just useful for helping to make projections later on, but also for helping to prevent some of these debates from being hijacked with really big numbers like we have seen in other places,” Kilmer said.
2) Looking at possible consequences of different alternatives – This is going to be the real “meat of the report.” This section will focus on the pros and cons of a range of different options Vermont could adopt. How Colorado legalized marijuana is “only one alternative to prohibition,” Kilmer points out. “There is a lot of policy space between prohibition and what has happened there.”
The report will look at the different regulated for-profit models but also explore many other alternatives, such as only allowing home production and cooperatives, using regulated non-profits, or even a state monopoly. Each has advantages and drawbacks. For example, many states use a state-run monopoly to regulate alcohol, but as long as marijuana is still schedule I, that option is unlikely to be viable. This option “doesn’t get much attention in the United States because states can’t force their employees to violate federal law,” Kilmer said.
In addition, the study will look at the ways to design a possible marijuana tax. It can be taxed by weight, as a function of value or by THC content. Each tax option creates different incentives.
3) What can we learn so far from other places – The final section will look at how reform has gone in places which have already moved foward. Obviously, exploring how implementation has gone in Colorado and Washington State will receive significant focus, but there are some other jurisdictions that have adopted different approaches, like Uruguay and Spain, that could provide useful information for the legislature in Vermont.
For example, one thing Kilmer thinks researchers have already learned from Colorado and Washington is that many of their early projections about legalization didn’t factor in the existing medical marijuana market as much as they should have.
Once the report is published, it could serve as the road map for Vermont and beyond
In the short term the study will likely set the parameters for the coming legislative debate in Vermont and shape whatever law might emerge there next year. It is also easy to envision how its impact could quickly extend beyond the Green Mountain State. Its basic findings should be very applicable in similar states where lawmakers have shown an interest in legalization, like New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Delaware.
Long term, what we have learned from the end of alcohol prohibition is that once a state chooses a regulatory system, it tends to stick with that basic design for decades. Systems quickly develop their own inertia. The rules states adopt in the next few years could shape how marijuana is treated for the next century, and this study could be where basic ideas for these future rules will start to take form.
Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy