Marijuana Remains Illegal On Lake Champlain Despite Vermont Legalization

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Possessing small amounts of marijuana will become legal under Vermont law in less than five months, but those who imbibe might want to think twice before taking pot onto Lake Champlain.

The lake is considered “federal water” because New York and Canada border Lake Champlain, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Andrew Barresi said. Marijuana discovered on boats is confiscated by the Coast Guard, and those in possession of the drug could face possible federal repercussions.

“Since there’s been no change to the federal marijuana law, we’d have to enforce it if we were to see somebody or if they had it in their possession during a routine boarding, or something like that,” Barresi said.

The Coast Guard routinely boards boats to perform safety checks, he added.

People who have marijuana on their boats face, at the least, a fine of up to $5,000, U.S. Coast Guard Ensign Chellsey Phillips said.

The penalties or possibility for prosecution would depend on the amount of marijuana and other factors, including whether the boat operator were under the influence, or if there were evidence of smuggling or trafficking, violence or a risk to public safety, said Christina Nolan, U.S. attorney for Vermont.

Nolan added that marijuana also remains illegal under federal law on land in Vermont even though state legalization passed the Legislature and goes into effect July 1.

“I couldn’t tell you whether we would do a case until we saw the specific circumstances of a case,” Nolan said, adding that some cases of boating under the influence could be referred to state court.

She added, referring to a January memo from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “We’ve gotten a clarification that we have very broad discretion in charging marijuana cases.”

Federal prosecutors will continue to take into account “the considerations we’ve long used in deciding to bring any case, which is the seriousness of the offense, the deterrent value of the charge, and the impact on the community,” Nolan said. “We’ll be using those considerations in marijuana cases, as in all cases.”

Nolan said her office has not charged a case related to possessing marijuana on Lake Champlain or boating under the influence in the past five years. She said that within the past two years, the Coast Guard has brought three impaired-boating cases to state court, but they involved alcohol, not marijuana.

Phillips said there have been fewer than five possession cases on Lake Champlain in the past three years.

Barresi said the Coast Guard considers having marijuana on a boat a safety issue, especially if the boat operator is using the drug.

“It might be legal in Vermont, and we’re seeing it legalized all over the place up and down the coast, but it’s still a dangerous thing to do while you’re boating,” Barresi said. “Just like alcohol is legal, we don’t want people to drink and drive a boat. That’s always our concern, is the safety and security of the boating public.”