Vermont Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Advances in House

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MONTPELIER, VT – A bill that would remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana and replace them with a civil citation and a fine, similar to a parking ticket, was approved by the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, advancing to the floor of the House for debate and a possible vote as early as Friday. The House Judiciary Committee voted 9-2 to approve House Bill 200, introduced by Rep. Christopher Pearson (P-Burlington) with a tripartisan group of 38 co-sponsors. If passed, the bill would make possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, two mature plants, and seven immature plants, punishable by a citation and a fine of up to $100 without jail time. Those under age 21 would also be required to perform community service and to attend a drug awareness and safety program. Under current state law, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail for a first offense and up to two years in jail for a subsequent offense. The bill has received support from Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who testified in favor of the decriminalization measure at public hearings last week. “I’m here in support of decriminalization,” Sorrell told the committee. “This might be a surprise to some but the reality is possession of small amounts of marijuana has in effect been decriminalized for quite some time in this state.” At the hearing, Attorney General Sorrel caught some lawmakers — and marijuana advocates — off guard when he added that lawmakers should consider allowing Vermonters to grow “one or two” marijuana plants without fear of prosecution. “If you take away the ability to grow your own, you’re pushing someone who wants to possess and use marijuana into the marketplace of having to deal with marijuana dealers,” Sorrell said. “And is that the behavior you essentially want to require and foster?” Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan also testified in favor of the bill, joining marijuana advocates and public defenders voicing their support. This bill will bring consistency and fairness to the four corners of our state by treating people equally,” Donovan argued. “A criminal conviction can carry lifelong consequences affecting employment, student loans and education, and professional licensing and on this issue alone we should pass this bill.” The bill is opposed primarily by law enforcement statewide, who descended upon the state house Wednesday in protest of marijuana decriminalization in Vermont. Steve McQueen, chief of the Winooski Police Department and president of the Vermont Association of Police Chiefs, and Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby, president of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association testified against decriminalizing marijuana. Both officers testified that while marijuana users rarely see the inside of a jail cell, the decriminalization of marijuana would send the wrong message to the state’s youth.  McQueen added that the “hammer” of prosecution gives his officers the leverage they need to get offenders, often younger ones, on the “straight and narrow.” There is strong public support for marijuana decriminalization in Vermont, according to a survey of voters conducted by Public Policy Polling last February. It found nearly two-thirds (63%) of voters support “a change in the law to provide for a fine of up to $150 without jail time for those who possess an ounce or less of marijuana for personal use.” The Senate is working on similar legislation, SB 48, which would decriminalize the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, as opposed to two ounces in the House proposal. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin also supports the decriminalization of marijuana, favoring the one ounce possession limit proposed by the Senate over the two ounces proposed by the House.

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