Former police push for legalization
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | October 20,2013
MONTPELIER — Backers of a push to legalize marijuana in Vermont are getting help from an unlikely source: retired police officers who spent their careers enforcing cannabis laws.
Just months into Vermont’s new policy of decriminalization, several high-profile politicians are already talking about moving to outright legalization. Gov. Peter Shumlin last month set the table for legislative action in the next few years by indicating for the first time publicly his support for a tax-and-regulate model.
At an event in the Statehouse next month, elected officials in favor of legalization will look to an organization made up of retired law enforcement officers to help make the case.
“I think the discussion has to continue to occur while we’re setting the table for the next couple years, and this is a great group to work with because it’s frontline law enforcement officers talking about the reality of prohibition policies,” said Sen. David Zuckerman, a Democrat/Progressive from Chittenden County.
Peter Christ, a co-founder of the national group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, worked for 20 years as a policeman in the suburbs of Buffalo, N.Y. He said he’s never made an argument in favor of marijuana, only against prohibition.
“We didn’t legalize alcohol in 1933 because it had medical uses and studies said it was OK, and in fact no one in the repeal movement was defending alcohol,” Christ says. “All people said was we may always have to have alcohol in our society, but we don’t always have to have Al Capone and drive-by shootings, so they took that out of the equation.”
Christ says that chapter in U.S. history offers a useful starting point for the legalization debate about to begin in Vermont.
“We still have an alcohol problem in this country,” he says. “But we don’t have gangs and thugs running the marketplace.”
Members of LEAP will be on hand for a roundtable discussion in Room 11 of the Statehouse on Nov. 12, where legislators and former police will discuss the merits of legalization. No former law-enforcement officers from Vermont are scheduled to attend.
If members of LEAP sound like unlikely voices to lead the charge for legalization in Vermont, so perhaps is the person moderating the event. As Senate minority leader, Sen. Joe Benning is a leader of the Vermont GOP. But while Republicans haven’t conventionally fallen in line behind drug reform laws, Benning said legalization isn’t at all at odds with a conservative platform.
“I am interested in moving the Republican Party especially in a new direction, and my concern is that taxpayers are spending money, and lots of money at that, on a battle that has not brought us success,” Benning says.
Benning said legalization isn’t about surrendering in the war on drugs, but about finding a more successful strategy to wage the battle against substance abuse.
“This conversation we’re having is about trying to address this country’s drug problem in a different way than what we have been doing for the past 60 years or so,” says Benning, a longtime criminal defense lawyer. “I want to get out of the business of prosecuting and get into the business of keeping people away from drugs.”
During his years in the Vermont House, Zuckerman helped build momentum for what was a decade-long push for decriminalization. Now a member of the Senate, he doesn’t think the wait will be so long for legalization, and that vote will come in 2015 or 2016.
Organizations like LEAP, he says, will help build the political will needed to bring reluctant lawmakers on board.
Christ was in Vermont for a speaking tour in June, and says messages delivered by former law enforcement officers resonate with a swath of the public that might not otherwise be so receptive to the concept of legalization.
“I spoke with four Rotary clubs and two Kiwanis organizations, and there were 149 people at those six events,” Christ said of his trip to Vermont. “And out of those 149 people, 71 of them signed up with LEAP at the end of the presentation.”
Christ said his dislike of drugs generally wins him credibility with the audience.
“I’ve buried more kids in the suburbs of Buffalo due to alcohol more than any other drug. So what we should do is obvious — we should ban it, right?” Christ says. “Well, no, because we know if we ban it we create an enormous underground economy that creates its own set of problems. And people are figuring out that the same logic applies to other drugs.”