Bill: No Jail for Minor Pot Offenders


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Under the bill, those arrested for the first or second time with one ounce or less of the plant would have the option of entering the court diversion program – the successful completion of which would result in no criminal record.

"What I've been told and what the committee has heard is that this is current practice across the state," said Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, the chair of the judiciary committee, who offered up the changes as a compromise Thursday morning.

The final bill, which was approved 4-1 by the committee and is expected to be voted on by the full Vermont Senate next week, is a far cry from its original intent, which called for the full decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.

But Sears said he did not have the votes to pass that kind of bill out of his committee. In fact, he even compromised Thursday with lawmakers to drop the threshold of marijuana from two ounces or less to one ounce or less in his proposal.

He added that this bill could be more beneficial than the other proposal, which turned small amounts of marijuana possession into a civil matter, because this version would ensure that an arrest does not appear on a person's criminal record – thereby not putting in jeopardy their ability to secure public housing, job opportunities or financial assistance for schools.

"My goal was to get a bill that could get 16 votes on the Senate floor, pass the House and be signed into law by the governor," Sears said. "This keeps the discussion alive for future years."

The proposed law keeps in place much of Vermont's marijuana laws, including large fines and the possibility of jail time for larger amounts of the plant or repeat offenders. But if made into law, it would allow people caught with one ounce or less to choose either a court fine of $500 or the court diversion program.

The law now calls for a $500 fine or six months in jail for misdemeanor marijuana convictions.

The proposed changes in marijuana laws are also coupled with a request to the Vermont Sentencing Commission, a body of judges, lawmakers, police, attorneys and others that oversee criminal sentencing practices in the state, to begin a year-long review of the state's drug possession laws.

"The question is, are we accomplishing what Vermont really wants from its drug laws," Sears said.

One of the members of that commission is Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand, whose statements in support of marijuana reform last year led the legislation getting serious consideration in this new session.

Although the final result coming out of the committee Thursday did not resemble what Sand proposed several weeks ago, he said he was pleased with the developments.

"My hope has always been for a broad-based and comprehensive look at our drug laws," Sand said. "And it sounds like that is part of this legislation."

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, was the only member of the committee to vote against the bill. She told reporters after the vote that her off-session job as a social worker puts her in contact with many young Vermonters struggling with substance abuse and she is worried this bill sends the wrong message.

"I'm upset that this binds the hands of the state's attorneys," she said, referring to the requirement that marijuana possession defendants have to be offered court diversion instead of criminal prosecution under the proposal.

The sponsor of the original decriminalization bill, Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said Thursday that she would have preferred that the changes not be made, but added that other lawmakers amending bills is part of the political process.

"It moves the discussion forward and I'm happy with that," she said.

Gov. James Douglas, a Republican, said during his press conference Thursday that he hasn't paid much attention to the bill so far, and added that it "has a lot of stops to make before it reaches my desk."

The governor said that he hopes it will not send a negative message to Vermont's youth.

"I want to make it very clear I do not encourage people to smoke marijuana," Douglas said.

Source: Rutland Herald (VT)
Copyright: 2008 Rutland Herald
Website: Rutland Herald: Rutland Vermont News & Information
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