A Republican’s view on pot legalization

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By Joe Benning

Recently WDEV’s Mike Smith asked me an interesting question: “You’re for legalization of marijuana — isn’t that a strange position for a Republican?”

Time constraints limited my response to what brought me personally to that position. I missed the opportunity to explain why any Vermont Republican might favor legalization.

I concede there are Vermonters who remain opposed to legalization, including many of my Republican colleagues. Some question the moral message it sends, some have law enforcement concerns, and some contend the product is far stronger than it was 30 years ago. These are legitimate concerns. I respond starting with two obvious facts. First, despite expenditure of untold billions, prohibition has not worked. Second, public sentiment is moving in the direction of change. Now let’s shift the discussion.

The Vermont Republican Party platform commences with a preamble embracing the principles embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the United States and Vermont constitutions. The concept of individual liberty is the foundation of all three documents. Vermont’s founders adopted that concept, enshrining it with quotations now proudly adorning our statehouse walls. In 1859, just three years after the Republican Party was born, philosopher John Stuart Mill published these words in his seminal essay called “On Liberty”: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

Marijuana prohibition has never fit well with those Republican principles. That is the moral message we should be acknowledging. So let’s live up to our founders’ expectations and move on to address the remaining issues.

Law enforcement concerns center on the lack of a testing device for determining the level of marijuana intoxication in drivers. When I started practicing law in 1984 there was no such thing as a Datamaster test, the device currently used to determine breath/alcohol content. But people were still being prosecuted for drunk driving. Proper police training, signs of erratic driving, evidence of consumption — these tools are still used to obtain convictions for highway infractions. Yes, a testing device would be helpful, but lack of one is no excuse to continue riding roughshod over the Constitutional rights of those who wish to consume marijuana in ways that do not affect others.

Product content concerns are real, but unsafe marijuana is found today because it is produced, sold and purchased in an uncontrolled environment. Controlling that environment with state-monitored production and wholesale and retail establishments would assure two things. First, purchasers would know the product is safe and can be educated on proper use. Second, it would enable us to prevent the product from falling into the wrong hands. Presently we cannot control either situation, which is why people get sick and children too easily obtain it.

There is one final point to make. Tax receipts from a regulated environment would give us more funds to combat opiate addiction, arguably the biggest problem facing our society today.

At the end of the day, the state’s budget, property taxes, health care and the economy are far higher priorities for our legislature to worry about. But they should not be used as excuses to ignore flawed policy. This Vermont Republican argues it is time for change.

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Joe Benning is a state Senator representing the Caledonia-Orange district.