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Pot Law Reform Gets Day in Senate


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State's Attorney Robert Sand told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that it is poor public policy to brand all Vermonters who use a small amount of marijuana as criminals, as the law now does.

Instead, Sand proposed a four-tiered system for marijuana possession that would focus on issuing civil tickets to people arrested for the first time with small amounts of the plant. This would ease the burden that marijuana arrests have placed on law enforcement and the courts, he added.

"To respond to the lowest end of the marijuana cases, it is estimated that it takes two hours of police work," Sand told the lawmakers, who are considering a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of the plant. "What happens in our communities during those two hours that the officer is pulled off the streets?"

Sand made headlines last year when he declared that Vermont's approach to marijuana was not working and that the drug should be decriminalized. Nearly 100 people turned out to the Statehouse last week to speak on that issue, most of them supportive of Sand's approach.

When speaking to the five members of the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Sand said the public opinion is now on his side on the marijuana issue.

"There is probably no other criminal law that a significant portion of the population thinks shouldn't exist," he said.

The bill before the Judiciary Committee would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Instead of being arrested and facing the charges in court, most people found with small amounts of the plant would receive a ticket of up to $1,000 and have their marijuana confiscated and destroyed by police.

That bill in its current form also decriminalizes the sale of small amounts of marijuana, but that provision is likely to be stripped if the Judiciary Committee continues work on the legislation. That portion of the bill had Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, remark that it "doesn't pass the laugh test."

But Sand's proposal is a bit different. He recommended creating a four-tiered approach to marijuana with penalties that increase depending on the amount of the plant involved. For example, one ounce of marijuana would result in only the plant being confiscated and destroyed.

Civil tickets coupled with court diversion would kick in for two ounces, and possession of larger amounts would result in misdemeanor or felony charges. Sand told the committee that the amounts he used in his proposal are flexible, but added that other states that have decriminalized the plant have gone up to 3.5 ounces.

"Twelve other states have figured it out," Sand said. "I think Vermont can figure it out as well."

Decriminalization of marijuana is opposed by many in the law enforcement community, according to Steve McQueen, the Winooski Police chief who was representing the Vermont Police Association before the committee Wednesday.

"Our position is to leave the law the way it is," he said.

The problem with decriminalizing marijuana is that those who use the plant would still get it from the illegal market, putting them in danger and continuing to benefit the illegal drug trade, McQueen said.

Instead, he suggested that the state focus on changing people's behaviors with an eye to decreasing marijuana use. He added that the burden on local police shouldn't be an issue in this drug debate.

"Don't look to make it easier for us," he told the committee. "Don't bring that into the discussion."

Lawmakers had some tough questions for Sand during his testimony Wednesday, including if decriminalizing the plant would send the wrong message to Vermont's youth and how to handle people who may driving under the influence of marijuana.

"We are trying to tell kids not to use alcohol," said Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, the chair of the committee. "Are we now sending a message that marijuana is OK?"

Sand said he would never bring forward his proposal if he thought it would harm public safety. But a recent state survey showed that 55 percent of high school seniors have smoked marijuana compared to 44 percent who have smoked a cigarette. Education, treatment and prevention will stop marijuana use from increasing, he said.

"In the states and countries that have decriminalized, they have not seen increases in use," he said.

Sand noted that part of his proposal would also rewrite the state's driving under the influence laws to allow for the arrest of a person who has THC — the intoxicating substance found in marijuana — in their system while driving.

"If you choose to use and you drive with THC in your system, you should face a DUI," he said.

Source: Rutland Herald (VT)
Copyright: 2008 Rutland Herald
Contact: letters@rutlandherald.com
Website: Rutland Herald: Rutland Vermont News & Information
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