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Meet The Vermont Marijuana Legalization Advocate Running For The Actual Office Of ‘High Bailiff’

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The irony is not lost on Dave Silberman. The Vermont-based drug policy advocate and lawyer who has been working for years to reform the state’s marijuana laws is running for the office of…high bailiff.

No, really. In Vermont, each county elects a high bailiff whose singular responsibility is to arrest the sheriff if they engage in unlawful conduct. Silberman wants to occupy that position in Addison County—and he plans to use it as a platform to advance bold reforms, including legalizing all drugs.

The candidate recently spoke to Marijuana Moment about the need to have a voice challenging the status quo—rather than someone in law enforcement, as is typically the case for high bailiffs—assume the role.

And Silberman, who played a key role in convincing Vermont lawmakers to legalize cannabis possession and home cultivation in 2018 and is now working to get them to add legal sales, also discussed how his background in marijuana advocacy is informing his campaign.

While the coronavirus pandemic has meant he will have to stump remotely for the time being, the would-be high bailiff is set on reaching voters to engage them, as well as legislators, on the importance of ending the war on drugs and taking a public health-focused approach to substance use issues. And he’s convinced based on conversations in liberal and conservative strongholds alike that the message will resonate.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Marijuana Moment: You’ve talked about the need to put someone outside of the law enforcement community in the position of high bailiff. Can you expand on that?

Dave Silberman: The office of high bailiff, really it’s a holdover of our British common-law roots. It’s in the Vermont state Constitution. We’re the only state that still has the office. And the office was created in order to ensure that somebody can hold the sheriff to account—that the sheriff is not lawless. The high bailiff is the only person in each county with technical authority to arrest the sheriffs, and that makes it effectively a police oversight role.

Now, over the last five decades or so, the importance of that has been forgotten, and a tradition has taken root, where the position is typically held by a member of the law enforcement community, either the sheriff’s favorite deputy or his political rival that wants to raise awareness and name recognition ahead of a potential challenge for the sheriff, which is also an elected position. But when the people cede the power of oversights of the law enforcement community to the law enforcement community itself, we lose accountability. And when we lose accountability, we get police abuse.

We see this all the time—we saw it recently in Minnesota, and that’s not the only time we’ve seen it—and we see police abuse in Vermont as well. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that electing a civilian as high bailiff is going to fix this problem, but I can absolutely promise you that electing me as high bailiff will shine a bright, bright light on this problem because I’m a loudmouth and I love talking about this stuff and I want to fix these problems.

MM: How is your background in drug policy reform informing your campaign and how would it inform your role if elected?

DS: My rooting in drug policy reform advocacy, it’s really what drove me to run this campaign. The office itself, I am never going to be called upon to arrest the sheriff—but I will have the opportunity to talk directly with voters. As I campaign both for myself and for legislative offices up ballot and our governor’s election or lieutenant governor’s election, I’m going to be going virtually door-to-door—I wanted to go physically door-to-door, but now I’m going to have to do it by phone and I’m going to have to do it by mailing out to voters—but I intend to speak directly with voters about drug policy reform, criminal justice reform in a way that I think appeals across partisan lines.

When I talk with people, for example, about the need to expand access to expungement, I get stronger positive reactions in traditionally conservative strongholds than I do in liberal strongholds in Addison County.

I organized a series of expungement clinics with our state’s attorney, our local prosecutor—three of them over the last two years. I went around advertising them, putting up flyers in different businesses. And you know, yeah, the natural food co-op was happy to put up a flyer and the local independent bookstore was happy to put up a flyer—but you know who I had the deepest most meaningful conversations with? It was at the bait-and-tackle and at the McDonald’s because people who have had any exposure to the criminal justice system know that, without expungement, people face a lifetime of collateral consequences of their conviction, even after they’ve paid repay their debt to society. They have a lifetime of daily discrimination in housing and education and employment, banking services.

I’ve always found that talking with voters about issues is meaningful, impactful and helps move issues forward. Since then, we’ve reformed Vermont’s expungement laws, and the legislators in Addison County all voted for those reforms because we talked about them and we put them in the public and we put them in the local newspaper. I’ve been going around this county for years talking about marijuana legalization, and we got that done and we got that done through grassroots advocacy. We’re going to get tax-and-regulate [cannabis reform] done this year too I hope in the same way.

I truly believe that we can do this with broader drug policy reform and broader criminal justice reform as well. That’s what drove me to do this campaign because I really found opportunity through talking with voters and driving up the vote up ballot, to build a coalition of voters and legislators willing to actually get these things done, not just talk about them.

MM: I know you mentioned likely not needing to perform the role of arresting the sheriff, but can you talk me through any scenarios where that might be required?

DS: Look, let’s be real. If the sheriff needs to be arrested, most likely it’ll be the result of some federal investigation. Right? He is absconding funds. He’s engaged in some sort of denial of civil rights. And then the FBI would come in and arrest him because it would be on a federal warrant. I should pause and say, I know our current sheriff, Peter Newton. I trust our current sheriff, Peter Newton. Peter Newton is a law-abiding man and I do not want to imply here at all that I worry about Peter Newton breaking the law. But, you know, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have meaningful oversight in place.

I don’t expect to ever have to do it. But if I did—if I were ever to be called upon to execute an arrest warrant against the sheriff—I would do stuff with a somber state of mind. I would, I presume, have the state’s attorney with me and I presume I would have either the Middlebury Police Department captain or somebody from the state police to assist me. That would be that.

Also, if the sheriff became incapacitated—whether through arrest or otherwise—the high bailiff temporarily assumes the powers of the office of the sheriff. As an attorney with a lot of experience working with very large organizations, I feel like I can handle that sort of several-week-long position. I would immediately look into the books and figure out what’s going on. I would continue to run the operations of the department in a steady state until the governor appointed a replacement, which is what Vermont law provides.

MM: What is the big picture plan if you’re elected high bailiff?

DS: This campaign is part of my sort of 10-year plan to legalize all drugs. And that is, you know, crazy sounding right off the bat, but I’m the kind of person who, when he sets his mind to something, just sticks with it and gets it done. I’ve talked with legislators, people in office today, who recognize that the Portugal [decriminalization] model is a better model. I’ve talked to the legislators who have told me that they would love to vote for a bill to decriminalize all drugs and replace our police-first approach to drug problems with a public health approach.

I believe that there is a good base of a coalition in there that can be built upon if somebody is willing to put in the work and make the effort on a consistent basis. I believe there’s over a dozen members of the House of Representatives—that’s about 10 percent of the House—there’s a long way to go, but it can be done. It can only be done if we can demonstrate that it’s popular. And that’s what I intend to do in this campaign—to talk with voters, get grassroots buy-in and pressure more and more politicians to say, you know what, this is not a crazy idea. This is the right way to do this.

We want to solve Vermont’s opioid crisis? We have to stop trying to arrest our way out of it. We have to actually stop trying to arrest our way out of it, not just saying that we’re going to take a public health approach. We need to stop spending $150 million a year on jails in this state. We spend 9.2 percent of the general fund every year on jails. That’s not cops, that’s not prosecutors, that’s not courts— jails. That robs us of the money we need to solve the underlying problems that actually lead to crimes. And it does nothing—does nothing—to ensure greater safety or reduce problematic drug use. If we replaced the police approach to it with an approach that takes a person in crisis and gives them help, we will actually solve this problem, we will actually drive down the overdose death rate in the state and we’ll make people safer and spend less tax money while we’re at it.

MM: You’re literally the pot guy running for high bailiff. Are you going to lean into that? Will marijuana puns be a part of your campaign?

DS: Look, I am not going to discourage anyone from making a high bailiff joke. I think it’s funny. It’s a little bit of a funny position, right? I take it seriously, I take the duties seriously and I take the opportunity very seriously. But I’m willing to reach voters where they are. And you know, engaging people in the political process sometimes means having a little fun and engaging in some levity. I love the pot puns, send them my way.

That’s not going to be a centerpiece of my campaign. You’re not going to see lawn signs with pot leaves on them. But you know, I’m not going to shy away from it either. My rooting in Vermont politics is drug policy reform and I’m proud of that and there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in using cannabis. This stigma—this moral disapproval that we’ve based our drug policy on—means nothing to me.

MM: Do you have plans to use the position of high bailiff as a stepping stone toward running for…higher office down the line?

DS: I’m not in a position in my life today to run for legislative office. I have a kid in high school, I have another kid in sixth grade. It’s just not for me now. I should also say, we have here in Middlebury, two really great state representatives who do good work in the legislature. We have in Addison County, two really great state senators—one of whom is a friend of mine and whose first campaign I didn’t just work on, I was her campaign treasurer when she was elected to office. I am not running this campaign as a marker. I am not running this campaign to threaten anybody for any office. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you and say I will never run for any office, but that is not what I’m focusing on. I don’t see me focusing on that kind of office in the near future.

MM: You lived in Hawaii for a time and you’ve been known to sport some vibrant Hawaiian-style shirts in your Vermont town. Will voters get a taste of that on the trail?

DS: If you are the kind of voter who is deciding who to vote for for high bailiffs based on which candidate has the better aloha shirt collection, I guarantee you, I am your man.

Marijuana Legalization And The Fight For Racial Justice (Op-Ed)

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Politics

Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill In Committee

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A bill to decriminalize marijuana possession in Texas—as well as a separate proposal to reduce penalties for possessing cannabis concentrates—advanced out of a key House committee on Friday.

These are the latest developments that have come after a week where Texas lawmakers have considered a medley of marijuana reform measures. But arguably the most significant piece of cannabis legislation to move out of committee would make possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a class C misdemeanor that carries a fine but no threat of jail time.

The full House of Representatives approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, but it did not advance in the Senate that session.

This time around, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee approved the decriminalization bill, which would also prevent law enforcement from making arrests over low-level possession. Other decriminalization proposals that were under consideration by the panel this week would not prohibit that enforcement action, which is key because police are currently able to incarcerate people who are arrested for class C misdemeanors even though the charge itself does not carry the risk of jail time in sentencing.

The advancing legislation, HB 441, sponsored by Rep. Erin Zwiener (D), would also prevent the loss of a driver’s license or the creation of a criminal record for possession of up to one ounce.

Separately, the committee advanced legislation to make possession of up to two ounces of cannabis concentrates a class B misdemeanor.

Both bills were among the subjects a lengthy hearing the panel held on Tuesday.

“Marijuana bills are moving through the committee process at record speed this session,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “There’s good reason to be optimistic about the upcoming votes and the House and advocates will be doubling down their efforts to influence senators.”

This action comes one day after the House Public Health Committee unanimously approved a bill to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program.

Sponsored by Chairwoman Stephanie Klick (R), the bill would add cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (for veterans only) as conditions that could qualify people for the state’s limited medical cannabis program.

It would further allow the Department of State Health Services to add more qualifying conditions via administrative rulemaking. And it would also raise the THC cap for medical marijuana products from 0.5 percent to five percent.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 900 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

On Thursday, the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee also discussed legislation that would make certain changes to the state’s hemp program, including imposing rules related to the transportation and testing of consumable hemp products.

While the Texas legislature has historically resisted most cannabis reforms, there are signs that this session may be different.

House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) said during a Texas Young Republicans event last month that while he wouldn’t be able to distinguish marijuana from oregano, he said, “I understand the issue.”

The speaker said that he voted for a limited medical cannabis legalization bill during his freshman year in the legislature, and his support for the reform is partly based on the fact that he has a “sister with severe epilepsy, and small amounts of CBD oil makes a big difference in people’s lives.”

Phelan also noted that he was a “joint author—no pun intended” of cannabis decriminalization legislation last session.

“I was able to go back home and explain it, and it wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “To me, it’s a reasonable criminal justice reform issue.”

Texans’ support for legalizing marijuana has grown significantly over the past decade, according to a poll released last month.

Sixty percent of state voters now back making cannabis legal “for any use,” the University of Texas and Texas Tribune survey found. That compares to just 42 percent who said the same back in 2010.

Leaders in both chambers of the legislature have recently indicated that they anticipate more modest proposals to be taken up and potentially approved this session, particularly as it concerns expanding the state’s limited medical cannabis program.

Phelan said he thinks “the House will look at” reform measures this year, including bills to legalize for adult use. He said the lawmakers will likely “review those again, and some will get traction, some will not.” However, the Senate remains an obstacle for comprehensive reform.

Legislators in the state prefiled more than a dozen pieces of cannabis legislation ahead of the new session. That includes bills that would legalize recreational marijuana, allow high-THC cannabis for medical use and decriminalize low-level possession of marijuana.

That said, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the Senate, has killed prior efforts to enact reform in the state, raising questions about the prospects of far-reaching changes advancing in the chamber.

Nevada Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Bill To Allow On-Site Consumption Lounges

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Nevada Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Bill To Allow On-Site Consumption Lounges

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A bill to allow on-site marijuana consumption lounges advanced through a Nevada Assembly committee on Friday. The panel separately passed a measure making it so the concentration of THC in a person’s blood cannot be singularly used to determine impairment while driving.

The social use legislation, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager (D), would create two new licensing categories for cannabis businesses in the state. One would be for “retail cannabis consumption lounges” and the other would be an “independent cannabis consumption lounge.”

Existing retailers could apply for the former license and sell products that could be consumed on-site by adults 21 and older. Independent lounges would not be permitted to sell cannabis on their own, but would need to have marijuana products delivered to consumers from another source.

That said, independent licensees could submit a request to regulators to sell cannabis that they produce or to enter into a contract with an adult-use retailer to sell their products.

The state’s Cannabis Compliance Board would also be responsible for creating regulations for on-site facilities and setting fees for license applicants. Businesses that qualify as social equity applicants would have a reduced fee.

Under the legislation, a person “who has been adversely affected by provisions of previous laws which criminalized activity relating to cannabis, including, without limitation, adverse effects on an owner, officer or board member of the applicant or on the geographic area in which the applicant will operate” is considered a social equity applicant.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 900 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Yeager proposed a large-scale amendment to the proposal before it was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee. It builds on the definition and scoring system for social equity applicants, revises public safety requirements for lounges and ensures that products purchased at lounges cannot be removed from the facility, among other changes.

The Las Vegas City Council in 2019 approved an ordinance allowing for social consumption sites within city limits.

That year, Alaska became the first state to enact regulations that provide for the on-site use option at dispensaries. Colorado followed suit with legislation approved that legalized cannabis “tasting rooms” and “marijuana hospitality establishments” where adults could freely use cannabis. Social consumption sites are also provided for in New York’s recently enacted marijuana legalization law.

In Nevada, adding new license types and giving consumers this option—especially in the tourist-centric state—could further boost marijuana and other tax revenues. And Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) has had a particular interest in ensuring that those tax dollars support public education, which he talked about during a State of the State address in January.

Sisolak has also committed to promoting equity and justice in the state’s marijuana law. Last year, for example, he pardoned more than 15,000 people who were convicted for low-level cannabis possession.

That action was made possible under a resolution the governor introduced that was unanimously approved by the state’s Board of Pardons Commissioners.

Under the impaired driving bill that separately cleared the committee on Friday, the per se blood test for THC would no longer be used in determining impairment.

Advocates have argued that the limit is arbitrary and there’s a lack of scientific evidence demonstrating a link between the amount of THC metabolites present in the blood and active impairment.

New Mexico Governor Sends Marijuana Bill Sponsors A ‘Save The Date’ For Expected Legalization Bill Signing

Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.

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Biden Gets Yet Another Congressional Letter Blasting Marijuana-Related White House Firings

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President Joe Biden has received yet another letter from a lawmaker demanding answers about his administration’s practice of firing or otherwise punishing staffers for prior marijuana use.

Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN) noted the national push to end prohibition and how the White House’s actions reveal a troubling disconnect.

“Cannabis is legal for either medical or adult use in 36 states, with numerous states pursuing efforts to further legalize for adult use,” the congresswoman wrote. “In Minnesota, our state legislature is expected to vote on measures to legalize cannabis in the coming months following years of political and community organizing by activists throughout the state.”

“Minnesotans and the American people are demanding change to our harsh and unequally applied cannabis laws,” she wrote. “I look forward to seeing your Administration reverse course on this harmful and unnecessary hurdle to hiring diverse and talented public servants.”

Craig also mentioned efforts to legalize marijuana at the federal level and commented on Biden’s prior statements on more modest reforms.

“I stand ready to work with you as we revisit our country’s drug laws, including the descheduling of cannabis as a Class 1 drug at the federal level,” she said. “You have previously expressed your commitment to decriminalizing cannabis in acknowledgement that a cannabis conviction or even the stigma of cannabis use can ruin lives and prevent people from voting, gaining employment and contributing to society.”

This is the third letter from lawmakers that Biden has been sent regarding the federal marijuana employment controversy.

A coalition of 30 members of Congress sent a letter last month that sharply criticizes the administration for terminating or punishing multiple White House staffers who disclosed their prior cannabis use. They pointed out that Vice President Kamala Harris and at least one one other Cabinet member are on record about their own marijuana use experiences.

Prior to that, Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) sent a similar message to the president condemning news of the marijuana-related firings for people who were honest about their history with cannabis on a federal form that’s required as part of the background check process.

“Simply put, in a nation where the truth is considered malleable, we need to demonstrate to our young public servants that telling the truth is an honorable trait, not one to be punished,” the congressman wrote. “I respectfully request that your administration discontinue punishment of staff for being honest about their prior cannabis use and reinstate otherwise qualified individuals to their posts.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki addressed the controversy last month, saying during a press briefing that while Biden could theoretically end the policy of firing staff over prior marijuana use himself, that’s not happening as long as cannabis is federally illegal.

She later said that the president’s stance on marijuana legalization “has not changed,” meaning he’s still opposed to the comprehensive reform.

Psaki has previously attempted to minimize the fallout over the cannabis firings, with not much success, and so her office released a statement last month stipulating that nobody was fired for “marijuana usage from years ago,” nor has anyone been terminated “due to casual or infrequent use during the prior 12 months.”

Read the new letter to Biden on White House marijuana employment policy below: 

Letter to Biden Regarding C… by Marijuana Moment

New Mexico Governor Sends Marijuana Bill Sponsors A ‘Save The Date’ For Expected Legalization Bill Signing

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