This Election Will Determine Whether Vermont Decriminalizes Marijuana

Sep 28, 2010

Brian Dubie, Dan Malloy, decriminalization, November election, Peter Shumlin, Vermont

In this year's gubernatorial race in Vermont, one candidate delayed passage of a medical marijuana bill in the state Senate in 2002, and another candidate's last name is "Dubie." Which candidate do you think is in favor of decriminalizing marijuana?

You probably guessed wrong.

Peter Shumlin (D), the president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate, is one of only two major-party gubernatorial candidates in the nation to advocate publicly for the decriminalization of marijuana. (The other candidate is Dan Malloy, the Democratic nominee for governor in Connecticut.)

On August 10, just two weeks before Vermont's primary election, Shumlin said on television, "We simply are penny wise and pound foolish to be using law enforcement dollars to be locking up criminals when they're dealing with small amounts of marijuana." He was consistent all the way through the campaign.

By making marijuana decriminalization -- the removal of all criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana -- a major campaign issue, Shumlin was able to overcome the odds by prevailing in a five-way Democratic primary.

His opponent in the Nov. 2 general election, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie (R), is ultra-hostile to decriminalization efforts.

Supporters of sensible marijuana policies must do everything we can to help Shumlin get elected on November 2. If we succeed, Vermont has a good chance of decriminalizing the possession of marijuana, as well as allowing a handful of medical marijuana dispensaries to provide patients with improved access to their medicine in 2011.

When I met Shumlin in a Springfield cafe in 2002, he impressed me with his candor, especially since he was telling me the opposite of what I wanted to hear.

Howard Dean (D) was governor and about to run for president, and Shumlin was helping him steer clear of controversy by bottling up our medical marijuana bill in the state Senate. I suggested to Shumlin that he was single-handedly preventing medical marijuana from becoming legal. "Don't kid yourself," he responded. "Governor Dean would veto the bill anyway, so I'm just saving everyone the trouble." He went on to say that he'd help pass medical marijuana during the 2003-2004 cycle.

He kept his word. With his help and the leadership of state Rep. David Zuckerman (Progressive), our medical marijuana bill was enacted into law in May 2004.

The story of our 2004 victory points to how we plan on being successful again in Vermont, if we can get Shumlin elected.

Vermont's original medical marijuana bill, which sought to allow patients and their caregivers to grow their own marijuana for a variety of medical conditions, passed the Democrat-controlled Senate in 2003. But the bill temporarily stalled in the Republican-controlled House health committee, where we were shy of a majority vote.

One legislator on that committee, Rep. Bill Keogh (D), publicly said he'd support our bill if a majority of his constituents voted for the local medical marijuana initiative that would soon be on the citywide ballot in Burlington, the state's largest city. The initiative then received 83% of the vote, Keogh changed his vote, and we therefore reached majority support on the committee.

But we had a governor problem. Jim Douglas (R), who replaced Howard Dean in January 2003, had publicly stated he was opposed to the bill. So we ran a heavy rotation of three TV ads in Vermont -- separately featuring an AIDS patient, a cancer patient, and an MS patient -- to pressure the governor and the legislature.

In the meantime, we were gathering postcards to the governor from concerned citizens all across Vermont. A reporter who was writing a story about our lobbying juggernaut was flipping through the postcards and noticed a name of particular importance -- Kenneth Angell, the Catholic bishop of Vermont.

After the bishop released a public statement in support of our bill, the governor and the House health committee chair cut a deal: They'd let the bill pass out of committee, provided it would protect medical marijuana use for only three medical conditions; coincidentally, they chose AIDS, cancer, and MS.

The bill passed out of committee and also on the House floor, and Gov. Douglas let the bill become law without his signature.

Because there were no abuses of the new law, we were able to expand it in 2006 by increasing the number of medical conditions and the number of ounces/plants that patients could have. This expansion became law without controversy.

Flash forward to this year: On March 2, the voters of Montpelier, the state capital, passed a local marijuana-decriminalization initiative with an overwhelming 72% of the vote. And a bill to expand the state's existing medical marijuana law to allow for the sale of medical marijuana through nonprofit dispensaries, which was cosponsored by Shumlin, passed three different Senate committees in March.

Vermont is poised to pass both a decriminalization bill and a dispensary bill next year, if Shumlin gets elected this November 2. In Vermont, successful gubernatorial races cost only $2,000,000 or so for the winning candidate; the Marijuana Policy Project has already raised/donated $14,000, and we continue to ramp up. Please help us make it happen.

(Note: This article also appeared on the Huffington Post.)