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Senate Panel To Consider Drug Issues


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The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing Wednesday evening of two pieces of legislation -- one that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and one that would toughen penalties for trafficking heroin and cocaine.

"I think both are public policy issues that ought to be explored," said committee Chairman Richard Sears, D-Bennington.

Sears, who sponsored the drug trafficking bill, is less enthusiastic about the marijuana legislation, which calls for making possession of 4 ounces or less a civil penalty rather than a criminal one. Offenders would receive something akin to a traffic ticket instead of a criminal summons.

"I'm leery of the amount being discussed," Sears said. "I would consider decriminalizing smaller amounts."

Sen. Hinda Miller, D-Chittenden, a lead sponsor of the marijuana bill, said for her it's about prioritizing resources.

"I sit on Appropriations, and we do not have enough resources to make good on all our promises," she said. "It's time to be realistic and look at the world as it is."

"I think it clogs up our court system with things I don't necessarily believe are a crime," said Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham, who also sponsored the bill.

Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen disagreed.

"It's not burdening our court system," he said.

Those charged with first-offense possession of a small amount of marijuana are usually sent through court diversion or referred to a local reparative board, he said. They serve no prison time and come away with no criminal record.

If marijuana were decriminalized, he said, those same people would probably pay the fine and carry it on their record for life.

McQueen has other reservations. Police officers on the street don't carry scales that would let them determine whether a person has enough marijuana for a civil or a criminal penalty, he said. Officers would also lose the authority to search a suspect who has a civil-penalty quantity, he said.

White said her preference would be to legalize marijuana. That is the backdrop of the decriminalization debate: What many supporters really have their sights set on is legalization.

That's the goal for Daye, a retired doctor from Waterbury.

"I don't think it's harmful," she said. "It's not addictive. You cannot overdose. Its effect is temporary. It does not cause brain damage. It's more benign than alcohol."

Again, McQueen said the goal is impractical.

"It's still a violation of federal law," he said. People who buy marijuana are buying from dealers who are knee-deep in crime, he said.

McQueen is more supportive of the other bill to be considered at Wednesday's hearing. That one would lower the amount of cocaine or heroin needed to trigger drug trafficking penalties. McQueen said crack cocaine is on the rise in Vermont and some dealers keep their quantities just below the threshold to avoid harsher penalties.

Source: Burlington Free Press (VT)
Copyright: 2008 Burlington Free Press
Contact: letters@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com
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