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Decriminalization Bill Gets Public Airing In Montpelier

Herb Fellow

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MONTPELIER, Vt.–Decriminalizing the possession and sale of small amounts of marijuana would cut down on the time and money spent charging and prosecuting people, reduce skyrocketing prison costs and keep young people out of jail, supporters told a Senate committee Wednesday.
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But others who testified, including one state's attorney, said the bill would be bad public policy.

Most who spoke supported the law, some even calling for legalization of marijuana. Others praised the committee for having the courage to bring up the topic.

"The issue isn't whether drugs are harmful and hurtful. The issue is what public policy will prevent that the best," said former Washington County State's Attorney and state Attorney General Kimberly Cheney. "I am convinced that when I started prosecuting people, there was hardly any drug problem at all. Some 45 years later, it's inundating us. ... My view is if what you're doing doesn't work, do something else."

State Sen. Jeannette White, co-sponsor of the bill, said she introduced it to ease the burden on the court system, and examine whether current laws are working to prevent people from entering the criminal justice system.

White, D-Windham, says she's heard from prosecutors, drug and alcohol counselors and law enforcement officials and members of the medical community who agree.

"I do believe strongly that the way we deal with people with small amounts of marijuana doesn't make sense," she told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier Wednesday.

"I emphasize that this is not a legalization bill in any way. It would only decriminalize the penalty," she said.

But Washington County State's Attorney Tom Kelly said his office is not overwhelmed by marijuana cases, nor are police, and said the bill would send the wrong message.

"This change is huge," he said of decriminalizing the sale of marijuana. "Will Vermont with that become a more attractive place," for people who sell marijuana? "In my opinion, yes," he said.

Some lawmakers were alarmed to learn that the bill also would decriminalize the sale of 4 ounces or less of the drug.

"We're all trying to keep an open mind here about this, but I think it raises a lot of issues that I don't know how we're going to deal with," said state Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the committee. "One of the interesting things is that it also decriminalizes the sale of less than 4 ounces and I think that that, for the committee itself, is real problematic."

State Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, called the bill a waste of time.

"We have a huge drug problem in the state of Vermont," he said. "We seem to turn our backs away from the real issues and the real issue is that marijuana is a beginning drug on the pathway to other drugs."

Vermont's marijuana laws have come under review recently in the wake of an October case in which Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand, who attended Wednesday's hearing, was criticized for granting court diversion to a lawyer caught with 24 pot plants, a felony.

In response, Gov. Jim Douglas ordered law enforcement agencies to bring "significant" marijuana cases with first-time offenders in Windsor County to the state or federal government for prosecution. He later rescinded the order.

Under current law, possession of less than 2 ounces on a first offense is a misdemeanor carrying a fine of $500 and 6 months in prison; possession of more than 2 ounces is a felony, with varying fines and prison terms, depending on the amount.

Eleven states have marijuana decriminalization laws, which differ from state to state, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

In New Hampshire, lawmakers are considering a plan that would make the possession of up to 1.25 ounces of marijuana a violation that carries a $200 fine. Currently, possession is a criminal misdemeanor that can result in up to a year in jail and fines up to $2,500.

Source: The Boston Globe
Copyright: 2008 Associated Press
Contact: Lisa Rathke, Associated Press Writer
Website: Decriminalization bill gets public airing in Montpelier - Boston.com
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