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September 03, 2012

High Times in the Queen City? Council to Debate Pro-Legalization "Reeferendum"

About-btvgreenYes we cannabis! That's the refrain pro-pot activists are hoping to hear next week when they ask Burlington City Council to approve a ballot item for the November 6 general election calling for the legalization of marijuana and hemp.

The referendum — "Shall the people of Burlington support the legalization, regulation, and taxation of all marijuana and hemp products?" — is being introduced by Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2). The Greene Street Progressive — yep, he really lives on Greene Street — will formally announce the resolution at a noon press conference on September 5 at Burlington City Hall. A majority of councilors must OK the referendum at their next meeting, on September 10, before it can be added to the November ballot.

Now, don't expect to see phat nugs for sale at the Burlington Farmers Market anytime soon. The nonbinding measure wouldn't actually legalize pot or hemp. Supporters argue it would simply send a strong message to Vermont's politicians.

And what message is that? A) That a sizable chunk of their constituency enjoys the occasional bong hit or two; B) the current policy of spending billions of tax dollars prosecuting and incarcerating people for smoking a largely benign weed is a total buzzkill; C) legalization could save the U.S. an estimated $13.7 billion annually; and D) it won't harm your reelection chances if you support legalization — and keep a box of donuts around the office in case we drop by.

Burlington's smoke-the-vote campaign is being led by the group BTV Green, a new, grassroots group looking to capitalize on nationwide momentum toward repealing the 75-year-old marijuana prohibition. Three other states — Colorado, Oregon and Washington — as well as the city of Detroit, Mich., all have binding referendums on their ballots this fall to legalize, tax and regulate the green stuff.

Albert Petrarca is founder and lead organizer of the BTV Green campaign. Petrarca, a surgical intensive care nurse at Fletcher Allen, points out that, as Vermont doesn't have a public referendum law like those in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, this would simply be a "spirit-of-the-people" measure. That said, if it gets on the November ballot and wins in Burlington, Petrarca intends to take his measure statewide for the 2013 Town Meeting Day.

Btvgreen-homeslide_01aThis isn't the first time this burning issue has been passed around city hall. In 2010, former councilor Emma Mulvaney-Stanek, a Ward 3 Progressive, introduced a nearly identical referendum, which failed.

Petrarca says he doesn't really care how councilors feel personally about marijuana or its boring but industrious cousin, hemp.

"It's not the question of legalization that's before the council right now," Petrarca emphasizes. "The question before the council is participatory democracy: Are they willing to vote yes to let the people to decide whether or not, on November 6, to cast a vote to end prohibition? That's a little harder for them to wiggle out of."

Councilor Tracy wasn't available on Labor Day to toke, er, talk up his resolution. Petrarca claims that at least five councilors are considered "solid" supporters, though he wouldn't name names. At least eight yays are needed for the resolution to go before voters.

Currently, both hemp and pot are illegal to grow in Vermont. Pot smoking is legal only for those who qualify for the state's medical marijuana registry — that is, those with serious, chronic and debilitating conditions. As of January 2012, there were 411 patients on the registry and another 68 registered caregivers. Although Vermont's marijuana dispensary law officially took effect July 1, 2012, no state-run dispensaries are currently up and running.

Considering that Vermont gave the world the snowboard, Phish and Ben & Jerry's, its marijuana laws are harsh indeed. Possession of less than two ounces of pot is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500. The upside? First-time offenders are eligible for a sentence deferral. The downside? Second time offenders can be sentenced to two years incarceration and a fine of up to $2000. 

A Public Policy Polling survey of Vermont voters conducted in February 2012 showed strong support for reducing the penalties for marijuana possession, a.k.a. decriminalization. That same poll also found that 74 percent of respondents believe that marijuana is as safe or safer than alcohol. Only 15 percent of those surveyed said they believe alcohol is safer.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has stated publicly that he supports decrim. But a bill to make possession of small amounts of pot a civil fine rather than a criminal offense went up in smoke last session. House Speaker Shap Smith, to date the biggest obstacle to decrim getting serious consideration, has indicated he'll give the bill a hearing next year.

"The problem is, the people nationally and here in Vermont are way past the politicians on this one," Petrarca emphasizes. "We're past decrim, we're past medicinal and we're ready to move toward full legalization. So, the whole idea of decrim is a day late and a dollar short."

Graphics courtesy of BTV Green

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