Senate OKs bill lowering pot penalties
February 14, 2008
By Daniel Barlow Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER – The Vermont Senate easily passed a bill lowering criminal penalties for small amounts of marijuana Wednesday as lawmakers called for a sweeping review of how the state penalizes illegal drug users.
The bill stripping jail penalties away for most people arrested with two ounces or less of marijuana passed the chamber on a 22-7 vote Wednesday afternoon. The bill is expected to receive final approval from the Senate on Thursday before going to the Vermont House.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told lawmakers that the bill "puts into law current practice" of Vermont prosecutors sending most, if not all, marijuana possession cases to the court diversion program.
His committee rejected full decriminalization of small amounts of the plant because the federal government still classifies it alongside harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine, Sears said, and even issuing a civil ticket here in Vermont for marijuana possession would result in a criminal record.
"It remains a crime whether you are 16 or 92," Sears said, trying to calm fears from some senators that the bill sends a message to youth that the plant is safe to use. "What we are doing is allowing first and second offenses the opportunity to not have a record by going through the diversion program."
The proposed new law removes jail time as penalties for those caught the first or second time with two ounces or less of marijuana. Offenders would have the choice of paying a fine ranging from $500-750 or successfully completing the diversion program.
The law now in place calls for six months in jail or a $1,000 fine for first-time marijuana possession. The penalties for possessing more than two ounces of marijuana remain the same under the proposed bill.
It also calls on the Vermont Sentencing Commission, a body of judges, prosecutors and other officials, to carry out a wide review of Vermont's drug possession laws. Sears said the commission was "more than willing to take up the issue" to bring some clarity to the drug debate.
"I've heard some audible snickering in the room today," said Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, a supporter of the bill. "And that's probably because we know that our neighbors and friends are pot smokers. And this hypocrisy weakens the laws and the dignity of the state."
The proposal was not without opposition, however. Sen. George Coppenrath, R-Caledonia, warned that the measure "sends a message" and that "young children will be listening to that message."
In voicing his opposition to the bill, Sen. Hull Maynard Jr., R-Rutland, noted Rutland City's drug problems, which culminated this month in a fatal shooting over an alleged marijuana deal. Vermont towns are having a "tough time" with drugs, he said, and this is the wrong time to lower criminal penalties.
"This is the wrong time to take a tiny step in what I believe is the wrong direction," Maynard said. "We would be better off passing nothing at this time."
Even Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, who voted for the bill, worried about its repercussions. Responding to the handful of jokes that scattered across the Senate floor that afternoon about pot, he warned that "kids will now think this is no big deal."
"It's not something we should be laughing about," he said.
Sears agreed that drug addiction is a serious problem. But he confronted "message" concerns by reading a statement from Windsor County prosecutor Robert Sand, whose calls for drug policy reform resulted in the legislation. Sand's' statement read in part, "The only people sending the wrong message are the ones suggesting that changing the offenses amounts to condoning its use."
Sen. Edward Flanagan, D-Chittenden, agreed with many of his fellow senators that marijuana use usually does not lead to harder drugs. In college, he and his friends always "scoffed at the parallel tracks for marijuana and cocaine" in the federal government's eyes, he explained.
"A lot of people, including some of us here, did plenty of marijuana," Flanagan said. "I for one was never even tempted to try cocaine or heroin."
The Senate is also expected to hear testimony later this year on strengthening the state's laws against driving under the influence of drugs and increasing penalties against people who sell cocaine and heroin.