Rep. Mike Yantachka

Any controversial issue under consideration by the Legislature will generate a lot of emails and phone calls, both pro and con, from constituents and advocates. Marijuana legalization is the controversial issue of this session, and I heard from many of you as well as from organizations advocating for and against legalization. I have taken the time to read the emails and listen to the phone calls, and I have tried to answer most of them. I also discussed the issue with fellow legislators, with doctors, police, attorneys and teens. I found people in all those categories on both sides of the issue.

My two major concerns about marijuana have to do with driving under the influence and its use by youth. Anything that alters perceptions and slows reactions is dangerous when combined with driving. This is true of marijuana and equally true of alcohol. Young people, whose brains continue to develop well into their twenties, risk their futures with heavy use of marijuana, which dulls ambition as addiction takes over. And while tobacco is more of a stimulant, it can do considerable damage to a person’s physical health. All of these have greater effects on young people than on adults.

So, any of these substances can be abused with terrible consequences. Prohibition did not work for alcohol and, so far, hasn’t worked for marijuana, either. However, education and regulation can minimize abuse even if it doesn’t eliminate use. The fact is, marijuana has been easy to get whether we want to recognize it or not. Ask a high school student and they’ll probably tell you that it is easier to obtain marijuana than alcohol. Those who want to use it will use it with or without legalization, and those who recognize the danger will avoid it. There will be irresponsible people who get behind a wheel while high just as there are irresponsible people who get behind a wheel after drinking. We should not tolerate either behavior, whether or not the substances are legal.

Another concern is whether marijuana is a gateway drug, leading a user to try more dangerous drugs. Data does not substantiate that, and we are now seeing that over-prescription of pain killer drugs to treat injuries or pain after surgery has been a much greater precursor to opiate addiction.

H.170 eliminates all penalties for the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana for a person 21 years old or older, while retaining civil and criminal penalties for possession of larger amounts and criminal penalties for unauthorized dispensing or sale of marijuana. It also allows up to two mature marijuana plants to be cultivated by a person 21 or older with a limit of two plants per dwelling. The bill retains civil penalties for possession of marijuana by a person under 21, the same as for alcohol, and exacts heavy penalties on anyone who furnishes marijuana to a person under 21 and on anyone, regardless of age, who drives under the influence. Consumption of marijuana in public places is also forbidden. The bill was presented on the floor of the House, but before much debate took place, the body voted to send the bill to the Human Resources Committee for further consideration.

As one doctor told me, “Accepting that there are potential dangers associated with the use of marijuana should not automatically lead one to favor continued criminalization. The policy of criminalization also has serious adverse effects for individuals and for society. These include impacts on the criminal justice system, how citizens view the law, and high rates of incarceration. Criminalization will not stop people from using marijuana. … It may even be beneficial to go further and legalize sale so that marijuana users could be protected from illegal dealers who may adulterate marijuana with dangerous substances.” I agree with this assessment and will vote for H.170 when it comes to the floor again.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone at (802) 233-5238 or by email, and you can find this article and past articles at my website.