Group Hopes To Reform Marijuana Laws

06/10/10 7:34AM By Susan Keese
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AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

(Host) A grassroots group spearheaded by a former state legislator hopes to build support for reforming Vermont's marijuana laws.

Proponents say Vermont could more easily control marijuana by moving it off the streets and into state-regulated stores. Law enforcement officials disagree.

VPR's Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Daryl Pillsbury spent eight years representing Brattleboro in the Statehouse.

He says he saw a lot of time and resources spent enforcing marijuana laws, and he thinks those resources could be put to better use.

Pillsbury has also worked for a couple of decades at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. He's seen the results of accidents, injuries, domestic violence.

(Pillsbury) "What I have seen in my 24 years is a problem more with alcohol and prescription drugs that are coming through that hospital left and right. Nobody has come in who had just smoked pot."

(Keese) Pillsbury is now on the Brattleboro Select Board. While he was campaigning for that seat he discovered that many of his neighbors think the laws on marijuana shouldn't be any tougher than those governing alcohol and prescriptions.

(Pillsbury) "Everybody's so afraid to step forward and try and do anything because they're afraid they'll be labeled a user, whatever."

(Keese) So Pillsbury decided that he would step up. Last month he and Brattleboro writer Vidda Crochetta organized a meeting for anyone interested in changing the marijuana laws.

The turnout was encouraging, so the two invited Windham Senator Jeanette White to share her insights at a second meeting this week.

White has co-sponsored several marijuana-related bills, including a failed attempt to decriminalize small amounts of pot. White says that effort convinced her that decriminalization - turning possession into something like a speeding violation - was not enough.

(White) "If we legalized it we could make it a legitimate product much as tobacco and alcohol are. And I'm not saying any of them are good. But people are going to use them, so prohibition doesn't work. And if we did that we could tax it, and get the criminal element out of it."

(Keese) White says some of the revenues realized from taxing pot could be spent on education.

(White) "Because we know that education is what worked with young people around cigarettes. And we could control it. So we could keep it - not entirely of course, but out of the hands of kids."

(Keese) White - who is not a member of Pillsbury's group - says strong opposition from law enforcement is one reason many recent bills have failed. 

Thomas Tremblay, Vermont's commissioner of public safety, says there's good reason for that.

(Tremblay) "Marijuana has proven to be a harmful and significantly abused substance. When you look at substance abuse problems it's tied to community erosion and to crime. Why do we want to make one more substance that's widely abused that much more accessible to the general public?"

(Keese) Daryl Pillsbury is convinced many Vermonters feel differently. He says he's starting small, in Windham County. But he hopes eventually the movement will go statewide.

For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese.

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