- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 6, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - A coalition supporting the legalization and taxation of marijuana in Vermont say its members expect legislation will be filed soon, but opposition is mustering as well.

The Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana held a news conference Tuesday, a day before the start of a legislative session in which lawmakers are expected to consider whether Vermont should follow the lead of Colorado and Washington state in legalizing the drug. Supporters say that efforts to stamp out its use by making it illegal have failed and that the state could raise revenues by taxing the drug.

“Regulating marijuana will take sales out of the underground market and allow for it to be controlled like other products that are legal for adults,” said Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project, a coalition member. “Along with improving public safety, it will generate significant new tax revenue and create good jobs for our communities.”

Coalition member Joseph McSherry, a neurophysiologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center, said that many young people report that it’s easier to acquire marijuana than alcohol. Changing marijuana from an illegal to a legal market could reduce its availability to teenagers, he argued.

“If you want to make marijuana harder to get for kids, especially the risk takers and sensation seekers, you need to legalize it and regulate it,” McSherry said. “The people who deal in illegal drugs aren’t selective” about their customers.

But the group Sensible Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM-Vermont, has launched a lobbying effort to oppose the change. Its executive director, Deborah Haskins, a long-time substance abuse counselor and former head of a statewide group of school-based counselors, said in an interview that the risks of legalization are too high.

Haskins, who said her group plans to put in an appearance at the Statehouse on Friday, disputed McSherry’s contention that legalization would make marijuana less available to teenagers.

“Some studies have shown that a young person’s IQ drops as much as eight points,” Haskins said. “There are changes in attention span and memory, which is not going to make for a good student.”

Marijuana also has been linked to a higher incidence of anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders, she said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he is not inalterably opposed to legalizing marijuana, but he wants to see how this plays out in Colorado and Washington before Vermont heads in that direction. The administration is to release an independent study on the topic soon by the Rand Corp.

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