Pubdate: Tue, 13 Nov 2007 Source: Brattleboro Reformer (VT) Copyright: 2007 Brattleboro Publishing Co. Contact: http://www.reformer.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/59 Author: Paul H. Heintz, Reformer Staff Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/pot.htm (Marijuana) Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/coke.htm (Cocaine) Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/decrim.htm (Decrim/Legalization) Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/heroin.htm (Heroin) Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/people/Robert+Sand SENATORS TO TACKLE DRUG BILL BRATTLEBORO -- Windham County's two Democratic state senators say they intend to push for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana when the Legislature reconvenes in January. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, plans to introduce a bill that would make possession of small quantities of marijuana a civil, rather than a criminal, offense. While she said the details of the bill are still being worked out, those caught with "a couple ounces" of marijuana would face fines rather than jail time -- and the offense would not appear on their criminal record. "We need to put a lot more emphasis on the heroin trade, the crack cocaine trade and the trade of illegal pharmaceuticals. Most of the overdose deaths in Vermont have been illegal pharmaceuticals," White said. "We need to have our resources available to spend our time there and quit diddling around with little amounts of pot." Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, said he agrees with the substance of White's bill and wants the Senate Judiciary Committee to spend time revisiting the state's drug laws. "My view is that Vermont is spending extraordinary resources prosecuting and defending cases for small amounts of marijuana and that is a waste of resources. It takes law enforcement folks who should be focusing on more serious crimes and forces them to deal with small amounts of marijuana," Shumlin said. Along with White's bill, Shumlin said he plans to support an effort led by Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, to strengthen penalties for the trafficking of more dangerous drugs. Sears' bill would allow prosecutors to charge those found with 150 grams of cocaine or heroin with trafficking, rather than the current threshold of 300 grams. "We have dwindling resources and at the same time we're losing the battle against really heinous crimes that are linked to drug distribution and addiction," Shumlin said. "So it's not contradictory to advocate for legalizing small amounts of marijuana at the same time you increase penalties for people distributing large amounts of drugs." Sears said he does not know enough about White's bill yet to comment on it, but after speaking with Shumlin over the weekend, he said he is willing to hold hearings on both bills. "I agree with Sen. Shumlin that it doesn't make a lot of sense to be spending the judicial time on small amounts of marijuana," Sears said. "We both agreed that it's important to consider both." White said she decided to propose decriminalization after several people involved with the criminal justice system in Vermont approached her saying current laws are counterproductive. Though she wouldn't name names, White said she has been working with states attorneys and law enforcement officials in crafting the bill. Shumlin said he has heard the same. "If you talk to prosecutors around the sate -- liberal or conservative -- most will whisper to you that what we're doing with our drug enforcement money and our law enforcement is clearly schizophrenic," he said. Both White and Shumlin, however, say the bill has nothing to do with a recent case in Windsor County that drew attention from throughout the state. After part-time family court judge Martha Davis was found with 32 plants and 2 1/2 pounds of marijuana at her Windsor home, county attorney Robert Sands opted to send her to a court diversion program rather than charge her with a felony. According to White, "This has nothing to do with the case in Windsor. It's been in the works for years." Added Shumlin, "We're talking about a person who's caught with a joint, not a person who's cultivating three pounds." Gov. Jim Douglas took a hard line with Sands for reducing Davis' sentence to a misdemeanor -- directing state agencies to send "significant" marijuana cases to the attorney general or federal prosecutors, rather than to Sands' office. But Douglas spokesman Jason Gibbs said Monday that he would be willing to consider White's bill, depending on its details. "The governor is willing to have a legitimate debate about the most responsible way to deal with controlled substances," Gibbs said. "For example, he has said that it makes sense for minor first-time marijuana offenses to be dealt with through diversion or some other similar mechanism, but the place to have that discussion is in the Legislature, and what we don't want is an inequality from one county to another." According to Gibbs, "The governor's participated in a discussion like this in the past. He's supported taking some responsible steps in this direction as a legislator in the 1970s, so it's a discussion he's certainly willing to participate in."