Pubdate: Tue, 13 Nov 2007
Source: Brattleboro Reformer (VT)
Copyright: 2007 Brattleboro Publishing Co.
Author: Paul H. Heintz, Reformer Staff
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Heroin)


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

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."