Pubdate: Mon, 21 Jan 2008
Source: Burlington Free Press (VT)
Copyright: 2008 Burlington Free Press
Author: Terri Hallenbeck, Free Press Staff Writer


Senate Panel To Consider Drug Issues

MONTPELIER -- What Dr. Kathleen Daye really wants is for Vermont to 
legalize marijuana. She'll take it one step at a time, though, and 
travel to the Statehouse on Wednesday to urge legislators to 
decriminalize possession of the drug.

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.


WHAT: Senate Judiciary Committee public hearing on two drug-related 
bills being considered -- one to decriminalize marijuana and the 
other to toughen penalties for trafficking of heroin and cocaine.

WHEN: 6-8 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Room 11, Statehouse, Montpelier

INFORMATION: To view the proposed legislation on marijuana (S. 238) , 
To view the trafficking legislation (S. 250), visit
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom