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 High Bailiff is the one person in each county who has the authority to arrest the sheriff.
It's a quirky holdover of our British common law roots, but it's also much more.
— Dave Silberman for High Bailiff (@dave4bailiff) May 22, 2020
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.
I'm overwhelmed by the positive response my 8-day old campaign (@dave4bailiff) has received.
— Dave Silberman (@DaveSilberman) May 29, 2020
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.
And, so, through our deference to police officers, and without realizing it happened, we've ceded that power of oversight over the law enforcement community to the law enforcement community itself.
The office of High Bailiff should be held by a civilian.
— Dave Silberman for High Bailiff (@dave4bailiff) May 22, 2020
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.
While campaigning, I'll be excited to talk with voters about how, together, we can reform Vermont's criminal justice system so that it delivers more justice, and greater safety, without busting the state's budget or criminalizing poverty or addiction.
— Dave Silberman for High Bailiff (@dave4bailiff) May 22, 2020
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.
Feds Hire Hazmat Firm For Marijuana Eradication Training
The U.S. Forest Service will spend nearly $50,000 to hire a hazardous materials consulting firm to train employees how to safely remove marijuana grown on public lands under a newly awarded government contract.
The agency says the training is needed to protect employees, some of whom reportedly have been taken to emergency rooms after being exposed to hazardous chemicals while clearing marijuana plants in years past.
“Before 2016 we had numerous number [sic] of our Agents and Officers getting sick in our marijuana cultivation sites on our public lands requiring trips to emergency rooms with possible long term health effects,” says a typo-ridden document filed in support of the contract that was posted last week to the U.S. General Services Administration website. “In 2016 we received our fist [sic] citation from OSHA for not providing our personnel the training and PPE needed to operate in this environment.”
Training of agents with the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region will be conducted by NES, a leading hazardous materials consultant and training company that works extensively with law enforcement. In the document, the government says the NES program “is the ONLY training course in the U.S. available that meets our needs, and has met OSHA standards.” The course is estimated to cost taxpayers $44,732, and there will be no bidding process or consideration of competing firms under the single source award.
Going forward, employees will need to pass the hazmat class before they can participate in cannabis-clearing operations.
While marijuana has been grown clandestinely across the continent for generations, large-scale commercial grows hidden on public lands ramped up in the early 2000s, especially in California. Much of the marijuana fed the nation’s illicit market, but some also made its way to medical dispensaries, which were largely unregulated at the time.
Cannabis can be cultivated successfully in most environments without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, but many of the unregulated growers cut corners. They apply dangerous chemicals that pollute nearby waterways and fell entire sections of national forest to clear land.
The other potential contaminants at illegal grow sites appear to be the Forest Service’s chief concern. The document notes that many cultivation plots run by drug trafficking organizations “use hazardous chemicals not allowed for use in the United States.”
The Forest Service itself has come under fire for its handling of the sites. In April 2018, a watchdog report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general found that the Forest Service “does not always reclaim and rehabilitate marijuana grow sites after plants are eradicated, and FS is unaware of the overall impact these marijuana grow sites pose to the forest ecosystems.”
“As a result,” the watchdog said at the time, “trash and chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers are still present on these grow sites, thereby putting the public, wildlife, and environment at risk of contamination.
It’s not clear from the new contract whether the CES-led training will include information on how to effectively remediate cultivation sites after marijuana plants have been cleared. The documents specifically mentions the health and safety of Forest Service employees but is silent on broader environmental impacts.
Opponents of marijuana prohibition have for years argued that many of the environmental and health threats posed by chemical contaminants could be effectively eliminated through legalization. Though enforcement is inconsistent, most states that have legalized cannabis for adults have set strict limits on pesticides and other chemicals that can be used by licensed growers.
“It is hardly a surprise that those who elect to clandestinely cultivate cannabis on federal lands engage in practices that provide greater potential risks to both the environment and to the end product itself,” Paul Armentano, deputy director for the advocacy group NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “By contrast, a legal market provides regulatory oversight and demands that those engaged in these activities be licensed and utilize best practices.”
“While legalization itself will likely not entirely eliminate the illicit market, just as, for instance, broader alcohol legalization has not eliminated moonshining in its entirety,” Armentano added, “the reality is that it will continue to severely curtail these activities and the involvement of criminal entrepreneurs.”
Even many in federal law enforcement officials seem to agree on that point. In February, the head of the union for U.S. Border Patrol agents acknowledged that state-level cannabis legalization is forcing criminal cartels out of the market.
“The states that have legalized marijuana,” said National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, “have done more damage to the cartels than the [Drug Enforcement Administration] could ever think about doing.”
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton
DC Activists Submit Signatures To Put Psychedelics Decriminalization On November Ballot
An ambitious campaign to decriminalize psychedelics in Washington, D.C., is one step closer to placing their measure on the November ballot with the formal submission of tens of thousands of voter signatures.
Organizers have been scrambling for weeks to collect enough signatures from D.C. voters by Monday’s deadline amid historically difficult circumstances: a global pandemic, months of stay-at-home orders and protests over racism and police violence that filled the streets of the nation’s capital. But with the help of innovative signature-gathering techniques and allies flown in from across the country, advocates said they had successfully submitted upwards of 35,000 signatures—more than enough to qualify the initiative.
If approved by voters, Initiative 81 would make enforcement of laws against plant- and fungus-based psychedelics among the “lowest law enforcement priorities” for the Metropolitan Police Department. It would not, however, legalize or reduce penalties for the substances.
The measure would apply to all natural entheogenic substances, including psilocybin, ayahuasca, ibogaine and DMT.
“Today is a milestone for D.C.,” Melissa Lavasani, chairwoman of Decriminalize Nature D.C., the organization behind the measure, said in a press release. “Voters in our nation’s capital have made clear that they are ready to end another piece of the war on drugs and to support their neighbors who, like me, have found relief in entheogenic plant and fungi medicines.”
Lavasani, a mother of two, has said psychedelic therapy helped her recover from postpartum depression. She told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday that removing stigma around psychedelics could help other patients find relief.
“A lot of people here are using these substances on the down low. It’s not something we’re open about,” Lavasani said. “My frustration when I was treating myself, I didn’t feel like I had resources to reach out to… What we’re trying to do here is not only get this initiative passed but try to create a community that’s really inclusive.”
Elections officials now have 30 days to validate the petitions, the final step before the measure is formally certified for November’s ballot. A total of 24,712 signatures are needed to qualify the measure, a Board of Elections representative told Marijuana Moment on Monday.
Decriminalize Nature D.C. has already independently verified more than 27,000 of the collected signatures, said Adam Eidinger, a longtime drug reformer and the campaign’s treasurer. “According to our validation, we have exceeded [the required] number by more than 2,000 signatures—at least,” he told Marijuana Moment.
— 🔥Adam Eidinger 🌊 (@aeidinger) July 6, 2020
Polling suggests D.C. voters are open to the idea. According to a survey released in April by campaign organizers, 51 percent of respondents initially said they supported decriminalizing psychedelics, while 27 percent were opposed. After being read pro and con arguments about the initiative, support rose to 59 percent, while opposition increased to 32 percent.
Most who were surveyed said they hadn’t used psychedelics themselves. Ten percent of respondents said they had personally used psilocybin or magic mushrooms, and 23 percent said someone close to them has. Only single-digit percentages of voters said they or someone close to them had experience with ayahuasca, mescaline or ibogaine.
Majorities of respondents, however, said they or someone in their life had experienced mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Nearly a third said they knew someone who has experienced PTSD, which a growing body of research suggests could be effectively treated with psychedelic therapies.
“D.C. residents who benefit from entheogens include those suffering from mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and other traumas, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and patients in end-of-life care,” the campaign said in a statement Monday.
Find us at Church ST NW & 14th St NW! pic.twitter.com/BDvqonnfm6
— DecrimNatureDC (@DecrimNatureDC) July 4, 2020
Despite apparent support for the measure, qualifying it for November’s ballot was a daunting task for activists, who had to update their tactics amid coronavirus-related social distancing.
In March, organizers asked elections officials to allow them to gather signatures electronically, but neither the mayor nor the D.C. Council acted on that request.
Instead, the Council passed a novel bill that allowed a hybrid approach: Organizers could distribute petition forms electronically, but voters would have to print a physical copy in order to sign it. From there, residents could simply snap a photo of the signed document and return a digital copy to the campaign.
Officials also, for the first time, allowed people to sign their own petition sheet instead of having to use one controlled by a separate person—a longstanding prior policy that contributed to initial signature gathering difficulties during a time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
Eidinger told Marijuana Moment the campaign received nearly a thousand signatures through email alone. “We have 980 signatures collected through email,” he said. “That’s the first signatures ever collected through email in the United States.”
Help put #Initiative81 on the ballot! Just download, print, sign, take a photo, and email us your petition. Download the PDF of the official #Initiative81 petition with Instructions: https://t.co/DKIuEakgUd pic.twitter.com/mWPT3yvzaN
— DecrimNatureDC (@DecrimNatureDC) July 1, 2020
The campaign also sent petitions by postal mail to every registered voter in the District in order to reach people at home, and signature-gatherers petitioned voters at demonstrations and on sidewalks and street corners across town.
Organizers also had help from activists from across the country, including those behind Denver’s successful drive to decriminalize psilocybin, who flew to Washington in recent weeks to help gather signatures.
— DecrimNatureDC (@DecrimNatureDC) July 5, 2020
“Despite unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, D.C. voters from all 8 wards signed the petition to support common-sense reforms to police priorities that would help ensure that D.C. residents using natural plant and fungi medicines are not targeted by law enforcement,” the campaign said in a press release.
Lavasani, the mom behind the decriminalization campaign, said that with signature gathering now out of the way, the focus shifts to winning over voters. “For our campaign, today is also the beginning of the next phase to make Initiative 81 law,” she said. “We look forward to engaging and educating D.C. voters so that on November 3, D.C. says ‘Yes on 81’!”
Momentum for similar reforms is building across the United States, and Lavasani said a win in the nation’s capital could help propel the issue forward.
“I can see the Capitol from my house,” she said. “I think it’s really important to acknowledge that this could lay the groundwork for national reform.”
Here’s a status update on other drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
An Oregon effort to decriminalize drug possession and increase funding for treatment officially made it onto the ballot last week.
Another Oregon campaign to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use turned in what advocates believe are more than enough petitions to qualify, but some submissions must still be validated by the state.
In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last week.
Organizers in Nebraska last week submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.
Montana activists recently turned in more than 130,000 signatures to qualify a pair of marijuana legalization initiatives for the November ballot.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative could get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.
Washington state activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.
Mississippi Medical Marijuana Activists Relieved After Controversial Legalization Resolution Stalls Out
Mississippi lawmakers recently introduced a new medical marijuana resolution that would’ve represented another threat to an activist-driven reform initiative that will appear on the November ballot. But, to advocates’ relief, the legislation didn’t advance before lawmakers went home for the summer.
The resolution, introduced by Sen. Kevin Blackwell (R), called for the suspension of legislative rules so that lawmakers could draft and file a bill to legalize cannabis for therapeutic purposes. It advanced through the Senate Rules Committee last week, but it did not make it onto the floor.
The legislature could technically be called back by the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, before October 10—but insiders expect that if that were to happen, the purpose would be to approve emergency legislation related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Lawmakers already approved an alternative medical marijuana resolution in March. That one will appear alongside the activist-backed initiative on the ballot, and advocates have argued that the only reason lawmakers passed it was to undermine them by confusing residents and splitting votes. The legislature-approved measure is less specific than the one placed on the ballot with voters’ signatures, leaving room for interpretation and giving lawmakers the opportunity to enact a more restrictive program should it pass. It is also includes a ban on smoking medical cannabis for patients who are not terminally ill.
Legislators also introduced another resolution last month that would have suspended legislative rules so that they could craft legislation in accordance with the legislature-approved constitutional amendment on the ballot, presumably so voters would have a better idea of what lawmakers have in mind with their alternative to activists’ measure. It too cleared the Rules Committee but never came to the floor.
Interestingly, the latest resolution filed last week doesn’t mention the proposed constitutional amendment at all. Instead, it would have simply let lawmakers start working on medical cannabis legalization, potentially to demonstrate to voters that they were pursuing the policy change and that both competing questions on the ballot were unnecessary.
Jamie Grantham, communications director for Mississippians for Compassionate Care, the group behind the initiative, told Marijuana Moment that she thinks a marijuana business owner based in Arkansas orchestrated the resolution.
“He hired Mississippi lobbyists and twisted arms in Jackson to design a program that would allow him to dominate the medical marijuana industry here in Mississippi,” she said. “It’s an attempt to exploit patients in Mississippi with debilitating medical conditions like cancer, seizures, and multiple sclerosis, and to undermine the voices of 228,000 people who signed petitions to put Initiative 65 on the ballot for Mississippians to vote on in November.”
“At the polls on November 3, Mississippians will have the opportunity to approve Initiative 65, which guarantees Mississippians the medical marijuana they need right here at home,” she said.
The initiative would allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
The introduction of the latest resolution represents the latest wrinkle in a months-long conflict between activists and lawmakers. Then-Gov. Phil Bryant (R) expressed opposition to the activist-driven measure and suggested that legislators could pursue alternatives.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.