Pubdate: Mon, 04 Dec 2006
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2006 Times Argus
Author: Susan Smallheer, Rutland Herald
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


MONTPELIER -- It would be a profound mistake to legalize drugs,
according to Vermont's top law enforcement officer.

Public Safety Commissioner Kerry Sleeper said he disagreed strongly
with one of the state's veteran prosecutors, Windsor County State's
Attorney Robert Sand, who last week said he wanted to spur a dialogue
to examine whether drug laws were really helping Vermonters. Sand said
he favored the legalization of drugs -- "to get drugs out of the hands
of criminals."

Sleeper, who Friday accepted a $1.75 million federal grant from Sen.
Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to help fund Vermont's Drug Task Force, said
that his main disagreement with Sand was over the effects of drug use.

"We're forgetting about protecting the people," Sleeper said, who
noted that in his 30 years in law enforcement, starting with the
Vermont State Police, that "law enforcement alone is not the answer."

"I don't ever want to see a Vermont where we have legalized drugs,"
Sleeper said, noting that Vermont, along with other states, has a
problem with legal prescription drugs -- both the abuse of those with
legitimate prescriptions and the illicit street use of such drugs.

Sleeper predicted that if drugs were legalized there would be a
10-fold increase in the number of addicts, adding to already high
health care costs.

"The social consequences of that is great -- families are torn apart,
and the impact on health care and mental health care is great," said

But one retired law enforcement official with a deep knowledge of the
federal system said he agreed wholeheartedly with Sand's comments.

James Dean, a retired probation officer at U.S. District Court in
Burlington said that the war on drugs is not working. Dean worked as a
federal probation officer from 1976 to 1997. "I commend Windsor County
State's Attorney Robert Sand for having the intellectual integrity and
political courage to point out the self-defeating nature of our
approach to drugs," Dean said.

Dean noted that prior to 1937, possession of marijuana was not a
crime. And Dean, who has a master's degree in criminal justice, noted
that the criminalization of opium had its roots in prejudice against
the Chinese workers of the mid-1800s. Before that, he noted, it was
not illegal to have and use such drugs and many of the patent
medicines of the 19th century contained opium.

"We have transformed what is undoubtedly a health problem into a
criminal justice problem," he said of drug addiction.

Dean noted that tobacco is a far more dangerous substance to the
public health, noting that millions of people have died from tobacco

"We do not classify tobacco as criminal," Dean said, noting it was a
deliberate action by society.

"We are so far down the road of a criminalization policy that we think
we have no other options whatsoever," Dean said, saying he hoped
Sand's comments would spur a good dialogue on the issue.

In Dean's mind, the war on drugs is like the war in Iraq -- it's not
working and needs a major rethinking.

He compared the shift from gambling being largely illegal in the 1980s
to now being generally accepted by American culture, thanks in part to
a court ruling that made it legal for Native American tribes to host

Even if Vermont wanted to change its drug laws, it would run up
against federal laws, he said.

Nonetheless, Dean said, "it's worthwhile discussing it and have people
talk about it."

One state's attorney also favors a new look at Vermont's drug laws.
Windham County State's Attorney Dan Davis said he hoped that the 2007
Legislature would look at decriminlizing small amounts of marijuana,
to make it a civil penalty, not a criminal one.

Davis said that a bill introduced into the 2006 legislative session by
Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, would not have had his support because
it was too broad.

But Davis said that he wanted Vermont's lawmakers to look at some of
the consequences of drug convictions. According to Davis, any
Vermonter with a drug conviction, however small the amount, is
ineligible for a federal student loan.

Sand said that possession of small amounts of marijuana are already de
facto decriminalized in most cases, he said, as most of the cases are
referred to the court diversion program, which allows an offense to be
wiped off the books through some sort of community service or

Sand, who has been a prosecutor in Windsor County for the past 15
years, said the reaction to his comments has been gratifying -- that
people are willing to talk about the issue.

He said he had only received one negative comment so far, and a lot of
press attention and many positive comments.

"I've gotten a number of attorneys say to me -- 'it's about time,'"
said Sand. "And I've gotten folks to say that they are not sure they
agree with me but they agree the current system is not working properly."

"I don't want criminals controlling the distribution of dangerous
substances. I'd rather have a regulated marketplace," he said.
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