Statehouse Headliners: Gov. Scott must decide if legal pot will impede law enforcement

By Guy Page

Last Thursday the Vermont House approved H.511, personal possession and cultivation of marijuana, by a vote of 81-63. Senate approval is expected on Wednesday. Many press and state government insiders predict Gov. Phil Scott will sign H.511 into law.

However, legalization opponents hope for a veto based on a concern the governor raised in his May 2017 veto of a similar bill, S22: “We must be sure we are not impeding the ability of public safety officials to enforce remaining drug laws.”

Legalizing possession and cultivation could impede law enforcement in (at least) two vital areas: arrest and conviction for marijuana-impaired driving, and effective use of drug-sniffing police dogs.

As for marijuana-impaired driving, legalization is likely to expand marijuana consumption, yet no court-proven test for driver impairment exists. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2016 that drivers suspected of alcohol impairment may not be compelled to take the blood alcohol test without a warrant, thus police must rely on the “breathalyzer” test. Yet no comparable test for marijuana impairment exists. The most reliable test, Drug Recognition Evaluation (DRE) by trained police officers, is considered effective when conducted thoroughly, but is reliant on suspect participation. Many prosecutors still lack DRE familiarity. To date, DRE evidence has yet to result in conviction of an impaired driver in a Vermont criminal trial.

As for use of drug-sniffing police dogs, a legislator shared this concern last week by noting dogs can sniff out the presence of marijuana and other illegal drugs, but they cannot indicate which drug they are sniffing. Therefore a suspected drug felon can simply protest to the officer, “Your dog smells the legal amount of pot I smoked and had in my possession.” Absent of other indicators of probable cause, the officer may have to desist  —  thus allowing marijuana to be an effective “cover” against detection of other drugs, including opiates.

Legislators opposing legalization explain concerns

Last week some Republican lawmakers spoke out against legalization. Rep. Bob Bancroft, R-Westford, said educators, law enforcement, doctors and drug abuse experts all oppose legalization. “I have heard from scores of physicians, medical researchers, educators, law enforcement officials and drug treatment professionals. They are absolutely adamant in their opposition to legalization. To ignore these professionals is foolhardy,” he said.

Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, said legalization will make the substance abuse epidemic worse.  “Vermont has a huge substance abuse problem. The preponderance of evidence indicates that legalization would exacerbate this problem. This legislation is irresponsible and reckless,” he said.

Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, said legalization won’t make existing problems better. “We cannot claim we are making the roads safer, or decreasing teen usage, or keeping people from going to jail for small amounts of marijuana,” he said. “While Vermonters take a 9.4 cent increase on their property taxes, we don’t say let them eat cake, rather let them smoke a joint. We should have waited for more and better information, both from a report due in 11 days, as well as Colorado. This is a mistake that we will not be able to go back from, once done.”

Vermonters who wish to contact Gov. Scott may leave a telephone message at 802-828–3333, or send regular mail to to 109 State Street, Pavilion, Montpelier, VT 05609.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week rescinded the “Cole Memo” allowing states to legalize marijuana under certain conditions, and authorized U.S. Attorneys in all 50 states to use their discretion to uphold federal anti-marijuana laws. Kraig LaPorte, spokesperson for U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan, told Statehouse Headliners Monday afternoon that the office’s main interest is stopping drug trafficking and violent crime. When asked if the office knows that criminal groups in other “legal” jurisdictions built networks of small, single-household pot “grows” to cultivate and sell supplies of marijuana, Mr. LaPorte replied, “we are aware of that.”

Votes for the Jan. 4 Vermont House vote of H.511 were taken by roll call and are listed here.

Oil is the No. 1 go-to fuel to keep New England’s lights on during cold snap

During recent weeks of sub-zero weather, about a third of New England’s peak electricity demand came from old, backup, oil-burning power plants, according to real-time fuel mix data from ISO-New England. The region’s transmission operator was forced to turn to these old oil-burners because added thermal demand (e.g. people were cold and turned up the heat) for natural gas depleted the region’s power-generation supply. ISO-NE also dispatched more coal-fired power than usual. By contrast, renewable power generation was way down, perhaps because solar panels absorb little sunlight on cloudy winter days.

Globe warming means less wind

A University of Wisconsin study shows that if global warming increases as expected during the 21st century, winds will decrease by about 15 percent. “Global calming” will reduce wind power output by about 14 percent, studies show. Wind will always be a renewable fuel  —  but it may not always be so plentiful.

Health Department says 52 have died doctor-assisted death

About 60 percent of all recipients of a prescription for lethal doses of drugs under Act 39, the 2013 Assisted Suicide law, died as a result of taking the lethal drugs, says a Vermont Department of Health report.

Report Concerning Patient Choice at the End of Life,” dated Jan. 15, 2018, but issued late last month, is the first annual report to the Vermont Legislature issued since Act 39 passed in 2013. It reports there were 52 total events that met the definition of Act 39 between May 31, 2013, and June 30, 2017. The underlying diagnoses fall into the following general disease groups:

· 83% of cases are Cancer (43 total cases);

· 14% of cases are ALS (7 total cases); and

· 3% are other causes.

All death certificates listed the cause of death as the underlying disease, and manner of death (natural), per Act 39 requirements. Among the 48 confirmed deaths of people who received a prescription, the mechanism was:

· 29 utilized the patient choice prescription (60%);

· 17 died from the underlying disease (35%);

· 1 died from other causes (2%); and 1 unknown (2%).

The Vermont Department of Health has used the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System to identify 26 out of the 48 prescription recipients.

Guv’s Volkswagen $$ plan delivers best bang for clean-air buck

In November 2017, Gov. Scott recommended spending $18.7 million in Volkswagen Settlement money on four objectives: electric vehicle charging infrastructure (15 percent), on-road heavy duty diesels like trucks and buses (43 percent), non-road equipment such as forklifts (31 percent), and locomotives and marine vessels like ferries (11 percent). In a Dec. 27 op-ed, Conservation Voters of Vermont chastised Gov. Scott for not buying electric buses, asking rhetorically, “Why is the Scott administration making this wrong-headed recommendation?”

Answer: far from being “wrong-headed,” the governor’s plan will invest this one-time funding source in substantial, diversified, clean industry and public transportation. Charging stations, of course, will support the growing number of passenger EV cars. Funding for cleaner non-road equipment will help Vermont industry reduce emissions. Ferry engine upgrades will make those thousands of Lake Champlain commuter rides every year cleaner and probably quieter, too. Today’s diesel buses cost about half as much as an electric/hybrid yet burn much cleaner than their older contemporaries now on the road.

Gov. Scott, no slouch in business acumen, commented at a Nov. 29 press conference about waiting for a buyer’s market: “As time goes on, electric vehicles will probably come down in price and become more reasonable. So do you do that investment up front, or toward the end? The technology changes so quickly.”

Vermont Yankee sale hearing reset for Jan. 18

The Vermont Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has rescheduled the final public hearing on the sale of Vermont Yankee to NorthStar to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 18 at Brattleboro Union High School. An informational meeting will take place at 6 p.m. A Jan. 4 hearing was postponed due to last week’s blizzard.

Independent schoolers of all kinds to gather Jan. 24 at Statehouse

Homeschoolers and private (non-traditional, religious, and other) schoolers are marking their calendars for Jan. 24, for a celebration of National School Choice Week at the Vermont Statehouse. The day will include a free luncheon, an art contest with large cash prizes, meeting with legislators, a group photo on the Statehouse lawn, and youth-friendly tours of the Statehouse. For more information contact Asher Crispe by email.

Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership, Divestment Facts, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and the Church at Prison.

Image courtesy of Bruce Parker/TNR