Frustrated by nearly two months of stalling by their colleagues, state lawmakers in Vermont have come upon a novel approach to advancing a bill to legalize marijuana: They're taking hostages.
Reps. Jean O'Sullivan, a Democrat, and Christopher Pearson, from the Progressive party, are using a piece of legislation written earlier this month to threaten to reinstate alcohol prohibition if senior state house members don't revive the languishing weed proposal. If successful, Senate Bill 95 and House bill 277 would make Vermont the first state in the nation to make the recreational use of marijuana legal through legislative action.
Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. have all used successful ballot initiatives to end their prohibition laws.
Vermont's new alcohol ban bill, whose authors readily admit they have no desire to pass, would make the possession of any kind of booze punishable by fines as high as $500. Individuals caught selling beer, wine or liquor could face up to 30 years in prison.
The point: "The object was to basically embarrass leadership to say that we have [marijuana legalization bills] in front of us, and they're going absolutely nowhere," O'Sullivan told the Huffington Post. "We're certainly not going to ban alcohol, but when you say you'll let a drug like that be legalized and then you have a drug like marijuana that's far safer that's still banned, it's completely ironic."
Calling out the irony — many would say hypocrisy — in U.S. drug law has become a cri de coeur for marijuana legalization activists and sympathetic lawmakers, who now routinely remind the American public how many people have been killed by a weed overdose. (That answer, if you don't recall, is "zero.")
A study published at the end of January found that marijuana is actually 114 times safer than alcohol. But Congress and most state lawmakers remain vehemently opposed to any fundamental rewriting of the nearly 45-year-old Controlled Substances Act. The federal regulations, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970, classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, putting weed on par with heroin, ecstasy and LSD.
In March, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul (Ky.), introduced legislation that would end the federal ban on medical marijuana. Though the bill is unlikely to succeed in the current Congress, its passage would be a hammer blow to the entire artifice of federal drug law, as marijuana's Schedule I designation is partly predicated on its having no medicinal value.
But there is a long road ahead.
"People who have spent 30, 40, 50 years, entire careers, fighting a war on drugs are not just going to wake up one day and admit they were wrong," pot lobbyist Dan Riffle told Mic in March. "Until they retire, or they exit the voting pool, they're going be anti-marijuana and anti-legalization."
For legislators in Vermont, this stunt is sure to bring new attention to the historic bills in their midst. While it's unlikely to shift any votes, making opponents of marijuana legalization or decriminalization stand up to defend their increasing irrational positions will be a welcome sight — and another small step toward a more just drug policy.