Costs uncalculated in legalization report

By Debbie Haskins

We have a long way to go until we are all able to make an informed decision about legalizing marijuana. The recent report released by the RAND Corporation is a good first step in learning more about the issue, but it is imperative that we do more information gathering, research and data collection before Vermont makes any decisions.

The RAND report to the Vermont Legislature on the consequences of legalizing recreational marijuana in Vermont spends a lot of time detailing how to calculate the market, tax the product, and set up a distribution/retail industry, but it falls short on details when it comes to calculating the costs that legalization will impose on Vermonters.

At Smart Approaches to Marijuana, we believe the harms of recreational marijuana will cost more than the state could bring in through taxation.

There’s a great deal of information provided in the report, but what it doesn’t show — and doesn’t even attempt to calculate — is how much the state will be facing in terms of social costs associated with legalization, even for the harms that we know marijuana can cause.

Among those harms, the report lists dependence, traffic accidents, cognitive impairment, psychotic outbursts, emergency-room visits due to overdoses and chronic bronchitis, in addition to other short- and long-term health effects that new research has recently shown to be strongly associated with marijuana use.

We understand that these social costs are very difficult to calculate exactly, but this is why Vermont reached out to specialists like the RAND Corporation. We have data for alcohol and tobacco harms that show the socials costs are ten times higher than the tax income for these two legal drugs. Some argue that marijuana is not as harmful as these drugs, but even so there will be social costs, and we feel the RAND team should have at least attempted to calculate an estimate.

Without such an estimate, the RAND Report provides only one half of the equation. Legislators and other decision-makers are trying to calculate a return on investment for legalizing recreational use of marijuana, and one can’t calculate an ROI without both sides of the balance sheet; RAND has only given us the income side.

To the report’s credit, it states many times that this is a very complex situation, and it warns the Legislature and policy-makers to take their time and even suggests waiting for all of the consequences to play out in Colorado and Washington before attempting to come to a decision here in Vermont. We couldn’t agree with this sentiment more. A deliberate and thoughtful approach, with a full examination of all the costs involved, will serve Vermont’s leaders and citizens best in the coming years.

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Debby Haskins is executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana – Vermont, a volunteer organization concerned about the harms of marijuana and the social costs associated with regular use, particularly among children.