(Host) The five Democratic candidates for governor agree on many things.
But Senate President Peter Shumlin sparked controversy recently when he came out in support of decriminalizing marijuana.
As VPR’s John Dillon reports, this can be a challenging topic for politicians to talk about.
(Dillon) The setting was a candidate’s forum on substance abuse and moderator Peter Mallary asked about one drug in particular.
(Mallary) "Do you support the legalization of marijuana?"
Senate president Peter Shumlin favors decriminalization. He would replace criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of pot with civil sanctions, similar to a traffic fine. He has made his position known at earlier forums, and in recent news coverage about the decriminalization movement.
But Shumlin appeared to want to lower his profile on the marijuana issue at this week’s candidates’ forum.
(Shumlin) "On the marijuana question, if we had 100 problems we are facing, if we had 100, the answer is this would be 99.9 on the scale of my focus. However, I do support the decriminalization of marijuana. I have sponsored that bill continuously in my legislative career. And I am not running from my record. I will get tough things done."
(Dillon) Shumlin also drew the distinction between decriminalization and legalization. He said he was not in favor of legalizing marijuana, since that would violate federal law.
The other candidates agreed that too much money is being spent on keeping non-violent drug offenders in jail. But Democrat Doug Racine mentioned an issue that’s of growing concern to substance abuse counselors: the marijuana available today is much stronger than the substance smoked years ago. And studies show it’s being used by younger and younger children.
(Racine) The thing that scares me about the discussion of marijuana isn’t recreational use by adults. What scares me is when I hear stories of 14 and 15 year olds who are getting access to highly potent marijuana and are smoking it on their way to school in the morning. That’s what bothers me. So if we start talking about legalizing marijuana and saying to kids it’s okay to get high on your way to school, we are seriously damaging those children and their prospects.
(Dillon) None of the other Democratic candidates would go as far as Shumlin on the pot issue. Susan Bartlett talked about research that shows brains are still developing up to the age of 25. Young people need to be protected from both alcohol and marijuana abuse, she said.
(Bartlett) "So legalizing another substance to be abused doesn’t seems like a very sensible thing to me, especially when we are such failures at not keeping access to alcohol from folks that are under age."
(Dillon) Former Windsor Senator Matt Dunne said he supports industrial hemp and medicinal marijuana. But …
(Dunne) I don’t support the legalization of marijuana. And the reason is not because there is a big difference between alcohol and marijuana, but because we have not demonstrated as a society and a state to be able to handle the addiction issues that are connected with legal drugs.
(Dillon) And Secretary of State Deb Markowitz said she was of two minds on the issue.
(Markowitz) Alcohol is legal. Pot is medically not as damaging to your body. So why is one legal and one is illegal? But the way I would look at it, though, as a matter of how we’re expending our resources.
(Dillon) Markowitz did not come out for decriminalization, but she said it’s a waste of money to prosecute and jail people for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.