By Evan Halper
Forget ski resorts and prize-winning maple syrup. The big tourism draw for tiny Vermont could soon be marijuana.
Led by Gov. Peter Shumlin, state lawmakers are exploring legalizing a drug that has been as much a part of local culture as tie-dyes, psychedelic music and hippie farmers.
The state commissioned RAND Corp. to look at what it would mean for the Green Mountain State to become the official beachhead of legal recreational pot sales on the East Coast.
If nothing else, RAND's report predicts a tourism boom.
Vermonters already have a considerable taste for marijuana, smoking or otherwise consuming 15 to 25 metric tons last year _ as much as $330 worth of pot per resident.
But many, many more consumers of cannabis live within a couple of hundred miles of the state's borders. One million of them, to be precise, or 40 for each Vermonter who regularly consumes marijuana, according to RAND.
"An influx of tourists can be expected immediately after stores open," RAND's report said, noting that the expected influx would dwarf the experience of the Western states that have already legalized recreational sales.
"This is a much larger pool of potential visitors than in the areas surrounding Colorado or Washington, even in absolute terms, and massively larger relative to the in-state population," which is just 626,000, the report says.
All those tourists could mean tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue for the state. But a huge number of pot consumers crossing state lines could also antagonize federal drug authorities, triggering a crackdown, the report's authors warned.
Moreover, hordes of pot-heads driving long distances to get high would also bring predictable public nuisance and traffic problems, RAND said.
Voters in Washington, D.C., already beat Vermont to legalization, approving a ballot measure in November that would make the nation's capital the first jurisdiction in the East to permit recreational pot use.
But the law may not take effect since Congress, which has the power to manage the affairs of the district, is trying to block it. Moreover, the D.C. measure legalizes possession, but does not allow for sales of pot.
Thus, Vermont could be in the pole position as the East Coast venue for recreational pot sales.
RAND expressed no opinion on whether Vermont should go ahead with full legalization. The report presented extensive analysis of potential public health risks, pointing to "some clear acute and chronic health effects, especially of persistent heavy marijuana use."
The authors also noted that the state could take a different approach than Colorado and Washington state. Vermont could, for example, keep tight control over the pot trade by requiring marijuana to be sold through state stores or by licensing only cooperatives or nonprofit businesses.
The state could also choose to limit the potency of marijuana sold legally and ban those cannabis products, such as fruit-flavored candies and sodas, that can particularly appeal to children.
Should Vermont choose to legalize, RAND suggests it may want to follow the Western states by taxing the drug heavily. Otherwise, the report said, the cost of pot would plunge _ which would appeal to pot smokers but would not be a great idea as a matter of state policy.
"For most consumer goods, lower prices are a cause for celebration, but, if consumers are vulnerable to overindulging, low prices might be problematic," the report said. "Some view innovation that has led to very low prices for soda pop, junk food, and candy to be a curse, not a blessing, for the American public."