Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bob Orleck, a retired pharmacist and former Vermont assistant attorney general under Vermont Attorney General Jerome Diamond. He lives in Randolph.
If someone were to ask you today what the Vermont Department of Health’s current position is on legal sales of marijuana (S.54 commercialism), I venture many would say it has changed from opposition in the past to support today. I am happy to report that the department’s opposition to S.54 has not changed even though some I have heard from think it has, and even some media reports, including out-of-state news (Boston Globe), have headlined it as being so.
With the matter soon to be decided by the Vermont House of Representatives, where the bill resides having been passed by the Senate, it is critical the record be accurate on this since the decision should be based on sound scientific medical reasoning. While there are politicians, investors, users and other misguided people who have their reasons for wanting passage of S.54, most on the side of law enforcement, educators, and especially health care providers and organizations know the dangers that such sales will inflict on our state and its citizens, especially our children. I had personally spoken in the past to Dr. Mark Levine, our Health Department commissioner, and it was clear to me that he would never support efforts to legalize retail sales of recreational marijuana and cannabis-infused products. This latter group of which Dr. Levine is a part, understands the medical science and the affliction of addiction and what it would mean for all of us.
In the past Dr. Levine has clearly told us publicly where he stood on the matter. In an interview in January 2018, state Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said that his department will continue to resist efforts to legalize retail sales of recreational weed and cannabis-infused products. As he put it, “We’re not just going to throw in the towel, by any means.”
With the above in mind, I decided to go right to the source for clarification, and so on Jan. 17, 2020, I sent a message to the department from their website comment page and received their reply. I have written their answer first below so readers can have in mind their concise reply as they read my question that follows.
I will end my discussion for the message from me, and their reply says it all. The Department of Mental Health remains opposed to passage of a Vermont law to legalize the sale of cannabis products for recreational use.
This is the reply I received from the senior policy advisor and legal counsel for the Health Department:
01/24/2020, 3:07 PM
To: “Gregorek, Sarah” <Sarah.Gregorek@vermont.gov>, “email@example.com”
I think you have accurately summarized the position of the Department. Our public statements, testimony, and published documents apply speak to where the Department is on the issue. A good place to start is on the Department’s website. https://www.healthvermont.gov/alcohol-drugs/lets-talk-cannabis
Any person can be referred to those resources.
Senior Policy and Legal Advisor
Vermont Department of Health
And this was my message to the Department of Health on Jan. 17, 2020.
Dear Dr. Levine:
My name is Bob Orleck. I am a resident of Randolph, VT, a retired Vermont pharmacist and a former prosecutor on Maui, a former Vermont Assistant Attorney heading the Vermont Corrections legal division, then the Vermont Mental Health legal divisions as well as being the head of Vermont’s Agency of Human Services attorneys.
Recently someone told me that your Department now supports the commercialization of cannabis. I told them I doubted that was true for I have talked to you in the past and knew where you stood on the matter. Yesterday, someone else pointed out an article to me appearing in “Marijuana Minute” headlined “Vermont Should Legalize Marijuana Sales, Top Health Department Official Says“. Embedded in the article was an hour plus audio that included WDEV, Dave Graham’s interview with Cynthia Seivwright, your director of Alcohol and Drug Abuse programs. That headline caught my eye for now I could read about it and learn the facts about whether you do support commercialism or not.
Listening to the audio was quite enlightening. Unless one was onto every word carefully, they could come away with the impression that in fact, the Department was now supporting commercialism. Director Seivwright, with little doubt from her words, does personally support legal sales of cannabis. At the end of the audio, at the 1 hour 18-minute point, upon being asked by Graham what she would be telling the legislature, she then mentioned you.
“Our Commissioner, Mark Levine, has the pleasure of being able to go to the statehouse and doing the testimony for the Health Department and our Deputy Commissioner Kelly Dougherty will be there as well and at this point, as I said earlier, if we’re going to have a legalized marijuana in this state we will support the regulation of that.”
She failed to mention that you have previously stated, just a month ago, in a statement that said in part “…there is no public health reason for wholesale legalization” but just seconds after saying what she did about your role, she responded to Dave Graham in a way that would mislead most to believe it was the Department’s position that since we now have legalization of marijuana that this “commercialism” would be the “natural next step” which she emphatically acknowledged. There is a huge difference between saying commercialism should be legalized versus saying, if legalized, we will support the regulation of it.
The point is that she put out an impression that your Department supports commercialization of cannabis and that feeling is borne out by the article that even printed what a noted marijuana legalization advocate told Marijuana Moments, that “The Department of Health’s support—a first for the state agency—was welcomed by Dave Silberman, an attorney and pro bono drug policy reform advocate from Middlebury.” “Vermonters of all political stripes are eager to enact a strong regulatory system that puts consumer safety at the forefront and generates significant revenues for the Department’s broader addiction prevention and treatment efforts.” “Rather than burying their heads in the sand and wishing for a drug-free America, the Department seems to finally be taking a facts-based approach to cannabis, rooted in harm reduction instead of stigma. That is a very good thing.”
My request is that you clarify for Attorney Silberman and everyone else, that the Department of Health’s position is not for passage of S.54, but is the same as it has always been. That would be a great service to our state and especially to our children who will be the ones hurt the worst by going in this direction.
I know this is a long message, and I hope you have reached this far reading it. If so, I wish you will view a very short part of a video (2 minutes) of the marijuana form recently hosted by T.J. Donovan, Vermont Attorney General, in which Laura Subin, Director of Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, fielded a question from Ed Baker, an addiction expert, who asked, “My question to you is this. Once commercialization goes into effect, in 5 years from now we see a significant jump in all negative statistics related to youth and adult cannabis use, what will you do about that.” After a very uncomfortable moment of silence then laughter that you can view in the two minute video of the happening, she answered to Donovan’s request for responses with, “I’m happy to. I still think it’s the right thing to do.” This video clip is a must see for all parents and those misled that the marijuana of today is the same that was smoked at Woodstock.