By Guy Page
Last year, legislators and lobbyists invested S.54, the commercial cannabis bill approved yesterday by the Vermont Legislature, with the moral imperative force of racial justice.
This bill would deliver black Vermonters from suffering disproportionately from conviction of marijuana-related crimes, the Vermont ACLU and the more progressive members of the Vermont House Judiciary Committee argued. Failure to tax and regulate commercial cannabis would perpetuate systemic racism, they said.
Critics countered that no-one – of any color – was being incarcerated for marijuana crimes, thanks to decriminalization and legalization of marijuana possession. For those convicted during less enlightened times, new expungement laws could wipe records clean.
Pushing these objections aside, commercial cannabis advocates continued to present S.54 as a much-needed instrument of racial justice.
So many were surprised when earlier this year, Vermont’s leading racial justice organization repeatedly, publicly expressed opposition to S.54. Last Thursday, Mark Hughes of Justice for All sent this urgent message to lawmakers: “Please say NO to the taxation and regulation bill, S.54. This bill has been flawed from start to finish and not only ignores the legislature’s responsibility to repair harm and ensure equity but actually is harmful to African Americans of Vermont.”
“No research was conducted by the Marijuana Commission on the historical adverse impact of marijuana on African Americans or the impact of systemic racism on the cannabis industry (they did provide reports on Taxation and Regulation, Road Safety and Education),” Hughes said.
S.54’s many critics say black youths suffer adversely from substance abuse. Compared to whites they perform poorly in schools. Black unemployment is higher than the national average. Marijuana abuse is positively linked to all three of these adverse outcomes. And where marijuana is legalized and advertised, consumption increases.
Nevertheless, both House (92-56) and Senate (23-6) voted yes this week on S.54. It now goes to Gov. Phil Scott, who has expressed satisfaction with the Legislature meeting some of his concerns. Like the doctors, police, educators, and substance abuse counselors who also urged the Legislature to not allow high-potency, psychosis-inducing marijuana to become a legal, advertised drug, Hughes and the racial justice community he represents was effectively ignored by the Vermont Legislature.
But not by every legislator. Rep. Randall Szott (Barnard) is an independent-minded Democrat who has clashed with leadership on school mergers and other issues. After voting “no” on S.54, he told his fellow representatives: “I believe the Vermont League of Cities and Towns that this bill is bad for municipalities. I believe NOFA and Rural VT that this bill is bad for Vermont farmers. I believe Justice for All that this bill exacerbates racial inequity and I vote no.”
In his otherwise positive comments about S.54 at a recent press conference, Gov. Scott mentioned that he had recently heard of new concerns [from Hughes and farmers], and that he would look into them. As Scott ponders his decision whether or not to veto S,54 — a veto not likely to be overridden — Hughes and other advocates of Vermonters at risk from marijuana abuse will be hoping the answer is “yes.”
Read more of Guy Page’s reports. Vermont Daily is sponsored by True North Media.