Drug Doubter

Vermont prosecutor Robert Sand says what he thinks about marijuana. He's making people uncomfortable.
by | April 2007

It is not unheard-of for ex-law enforcement officials to question the war on drugs. There are judges, police officers, even a couple of former U.S. attorneys general who have argued after leaving office that the nation's effort to combat illegal drugs, and especially marijuana, was misguided.

But it's rare to find a sitting prosecutor willing to say the whole thing is a waste of time. "Most are smarter than me," says Robert Sand, the state's attorney for Windsor County, Vermont. Or at least more discreet.

Sand, who is 48, has stirred up a small tempest in his state by advocating what he calls "peace talks in the war on drugs." The state's public safety commissioner, Kerry Sleeper, rejects the idea out of hand. "I don't ever want to see a Vermont where we have legalized drugs," Sleeper commented not long ago. Vermont's governor, Republican Jim Douglas, goes even further. He not only disapproves of Sand's position but rebukes him for waiting until after the election last November to speak out on the issue. "The voters of Windsor County perhaps had a right to know this before he was reelected," Douglas has said.

Actually, Sand has made no secret of his feelings for quite some time. He wrote several op-eds on the drug question for local newspapers as early as 2005. But it was not until after the 2006 election that his views began to get noticed outside Windsor County. "I wanted to help lay the groundwork for a broader discussion and show that we could talk about a controversial idea," he says. "I am convinced that voters are ahead of the politicians on this."

The core of Sand's argument has focused on marijuana, which he advocates legalizing and regulating; society, he says, has been damaged more than it has been helped by keeping it illegal. "If you look at the harm associated with marijuana use, then at the harm from the black market in marijuana--especially the violence associated with drug transactions--and then weigh the relative harms, I say the harm from the black market outweighs the harm from use itself," he says. "If that's correct, then we should find a way to eliminate the black market." Furthermore, by keeping marijuana illegal, Sand contends, society makes it a "gateway drug," although not quite in the sense that his colleagues mean it. "For someone to try marijuana, they have to make contact with a drug dealer," he says. "It becomes a gateway to a relationship with a drug dealer."

If Sand does manage to stoke a broader public debate, there is no question that he will have benefited, at least in part, from geography. While no legislation embodying Sand's thinking has surfaced yet in Vermont, the legislature in neighboring New Hampshire recently began debating a bill--authored by Representative Charles Weed--to legalize marijuana. "What Sand has done is rare but not without precedent," says Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "But it only happens on the coasts and in New England. You're not going to see this in Lawton, Oklahoma."

Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent

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