commentary is by Kate Nugent and Mariah Sanderson, who are co-chairs of the Smart Approaches to Marijuana Vermont Steering Committee, and Dean Whitlock, a member of SAM Vermont.
Sen. Phillip Baruth’s proposal that Vermont rush to legalize commercial sales of cannabis so that the tax revenue can be used to support our failing state college system sounds logical in a quick read, but it falls apart under closer consideration.
To his credit, Baruth is far less ridiculous in his estimate of annual tax revenues than most proponents of commercialization. While others sing about billions, Baruth projects about $24 million per year, based on the revenue from Vermont’s liquor taxes. Two-thirds of that would be a reasonable $16 million to $20 million. And he is quick to point out the fact that the liquor income is split at least 15 different ways, “somewhat helpful to many, but life-saving for none.”
Baruth ignores two basic facts about Vermont’s liquor revenue:
1) It is generated by far more drinkers than there are marijuana users; and 2) the system as a whole runs a deficit every year. The implications are clear.
Far more Vermonters will have to start buying and using marijuana than do now and there still won’t be enough revenue to pay for the social costs incurred by those users, on top of the costs of regulation.
Let’s look at this second issue first.
Nowhere in this country do liquor taxes cover anywhere near the additional costs for health problems, lost productivity, divorce, child and spousal abuse, or even simple enforcement of the much-touted regulations. Licensing fees also fall short of the administrative expenses they are supposed to cover. As a result, the taxpayer winds up paying for increased demands on Medicaid, social services, addiction treatment, mental health treatment, and law enforcement, which includes dealing with the still very alive black market that caters to underage drinkers.
In fact, tax revenues have not kept pace with regular inflation, because the liquor lobby has a firm grip on our legislators. The result: tax revenues have steadily decreased in real dollars. Add to that the inclination of legislators to allocate those funds elsewhere – needy causes all, but not related to the enjoyment or abuse of alcohol.
Now the first issue: One reason for the high costs of alcohol use is the sheer number of people who drink, and who drink heavily. Why? Because alcohol is legal and commercialized, which means there is an industry that spends billions of dollars each year making sure that people start and keep drinking.
In each state where cannabis has been commercialized, the number of users has increased. At the same time, the number of heavy cannabis users has increased, as has the heaviness of their use, measured both in terms of frequency and amount. And these numbers have gone up most in the 18-25 age group. In other words, among our college students.
Most of us realize by now that the younger you are when you start to use any psychoactive substance the more likely you are to suffer the harms of the substance. That period of vulnerability lasts until the mid 20s.
Ironically, then, the college students Baruth hopes to support with cannabis tax revenue are those most likely to be harmed by commercialization. A review of the recent scientific literature about cannabis indicates that, in some areas, it is more harmful than alcohol. One of those areas is cognitive ability, making cannabis users more likely to drop out or, even with a degree, to achieve a lower economic level than their parents. Another area is mental health, making cannabis users more likely to suffer social anxiety disorder, depression, suicidal thoughts, and psychosis – problems that are already high among this age group.
And more studies are showing that the highly potent cannabis developed and marketed by the commercialized industry, exacerbates these issues.
Baruth is right in stating that Vermont’s colleges deserve a permanent funding stream to fulfill the promise made in Title 16, Chapter 72. He is wrong in thinking that cannabis tax revenues will be sufficient.
The vast increase in the number of college-age users, combined with the increased potency of commercial cannabis and the growing power of a cannabis lobby backed by white-collar investors seeking billions in profits, guarantees that colleges will never see a large share of cannabis tax revenues, and certainly not enough to deal with the additional burden on campus health and counseling services.
Commercializing cannabis won’t solve any of the ills our state faces, and it can certainly exacerbate many issues. Much the same with alcohol, it is the belief of those opposed to this proposal that expanding and encouraging cannabis use will cost Vermont far more than it ever could bring in. Our lawmakers must reject the corporate cannabis model.