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Vt. Senate To Consider Bills Easing Pot Laws


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Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, has scheduled a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the evening of Jan. 23 to hear from members of the public who have concerns about Vermont's drug policies.

After the hearing, that committee is expected to begin taking testimony on the two-pronged approach, which would boost penalties for possessing the harder drugs and use civil violations and the court diversion program for marijuana possession.

"I thought it was important to let the public weigh in before we started taking a close look at the proposals," said Sears, the chair of the Judiciary Committee. "This is a change in state law regarding drugs, and the public probably has some thoughts about this."

The marijuana decriminalization bill, proposed last year by Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, would make it a civil violation, with a fine of up to $1,000, to possess up to four ounces of marijuana or two small marijuana plants. Selling small amounts of marijuana would result in a $250 fine, according to the bill.

Possessing or selling larger amounts of the plant — more than four ounces or more than five plants — would still be a criminal act, under the bill, and could result in fines of up to $100,000 and five years in prison.

The second bill, proposed last year by Sears, lowers the trafficking criminal charges threshold for cocaine from 300 grams to 150 and from seven grams for heroin to 3.5 grams. Penalties for being caught with these drugs would be jail time of up to 30 years and a fine of up to $1 million.

Sears said he believes the trafficking thresholds for the hard drugs are too low in Vermont, but he added that he and other committee members do have concerns with the levels of decriminalized marijuana in White's bill, opening the door to the possibility that the four ounces could lowered.

"Four ounces of marijuana is a felony," he said. "I don't think we want to go there."

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, has placed drug law reform as one of his priorities for this new legislative session – a topic that Gov. James Douglas, a Republican, has said he is open to having discussed, although he has not endorsed the effort.

The new focus on marijuana decriminalization comes after a political scuffle erupted several months ago between Douglas and Robert Sand, a prosecutor in Windsor County who favors marijuana decriminalization.

Late last year Douglas ordered state-controlled police officials to bypass Sand's office on marijuana cases after the prosecutor approved court diversion for a local attorney caught with 30 marijuana plants.

He later rescinded that policy after Sand made it clear he does not have a blanket policy regarding marijuana possession and after news reports surfaced that an Orange County prosecutor also authorized court diversion for a man arrested with more than 100 plants.

Vermont is certainly not the first state to look at marijuana decriminalization, according to Bruce Mirken, the director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for drug policy reform.

Eleven other states, including New York and Maine, already have similar state laws, some dating back to the 1970s, Mirken said. The specifics of the laws vary from state to state, he added, but Vermont's latest effort seems to be moderate compared to some of the other states.

"According to the FBI, last year there were 829,000 arrests in the United States for marijuana possession," he said. "That's one arrest every 38 seconds."

"The really shocking thing is that there were more marijuana arrests than arrests for all other violent criminal acts combined," Mirken added.

Jane Woodruff, the executive director of the Vermont Department of State's Attorney's and Sheriffs, said she has not looked closely at the two drug bills and first needs to speak with members of her group before taking a position on the efforts.

Woodruff did say that as a "rule of thumb" most cases involving a small amount of marijuana from first-time offenders are sent to the court diversion, which she called a "very good program."

"Unless they were a violent criminal, they will probably go to diversion," she said.

She added that prosecutors in Vermont have told her anecdotally that reviewing and bringing charges in marijuana possession cases do not consume a large amount of time. That is in contrast to stories that some other lawmakers have heard, including Sears.

"Some prosecutors have told me that they might spend as much time investigating cases involving small amounts of marijuana as they might for a clear-cut murder case," he said, adding that this issue will be one of many that his committee looks at.

The public hearing on the two drug bills is scheduled for 6 p.m. in Room 11 at the Statehouse on Jan. 23.

Complete Title: Vt. Senate To Consider Bills Easing Pot Laws, Tightening Sanctions for Coke and Heroin

Source: Times Argus (Barre,Vt.)
Copyright: 2008 Times Argus
Contact: letters@timesargus.com
Website: Times Argus Online - Vermont News, Vermont Information, Vermont Jobs


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Thanks for the article. Funny, I mailed my state senators and reps a month or two ago about suporting any upcoming legislation easing pot laws. They all told me that the pot laws were federal and they had nothing to do with that. hahaha. I followed through and told them that it may become their issue. and sure enough...here we are. I continue to ask them to support the senate bill. Unfortunetly I can attend as I'll be recovering from an operation but I did shout out to a few local friends who may be interested in petitioning their elected officials on supporting this bill.

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