Pubdate: Sat, 02 Feb 2008
Source: Burlington Free Press (VT)
Copyright: 2008 Burlington Free Press
Author: Terri Hallenbeck, Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


MONTPELIER -- In the past couple weeks, the Senate  Judiciary
Committee has listened to hours of testimony  about decriminalizing

They've heard some people say the state is consuming  valuable law
enforcement time pursuing users of a  harmless drug who should not be
branded as criminals.

They've heard others counter all those arguments.

Committee Chairman Richard Sears, D-Bennington, emerged  from
testimony Friday thinking he's not inclined to  decriminalize
marijuana, as the proposed legislation  that launched the debate would
do. He would, however,  support eliminating jail time as a possibility
for  first-time possession of 2 ounces or less and allowing  all such
defendants to go through court diversion and  receive no criminal record.

"The point I'm left with is we have jail time attached  to a crime and
relatively few if any have done jail  time on it," Sears said.

Sears' approach is a compromise, but he might not have  the votes in
his committee to send it to the full  Senate. Most of the five
committee members said Friday  they don't see the point in changing
the law at all.

"I don't think we need to do anything," said Sen. Alice  Nitka,
D-Windsor. Decriminalization sends a bad message  to young people, she

"I don't think the system's broke," said Sen. Kevin  Mullin,

"I'm not going to do anything to put law enforcement in  a precarious
position," said Sen. John Campbell,  D-Windsor, a former police officer.

"I'm not sure anything I heard would make it better,"  said Sen. Ann
Cummings, D-Washington, adding that she's  still considering the issue.

First-time possession of 2 ounces or less of marijuana  is punishable
in Vermont by up to six months in prison  and a $500 fine. Those
testifying before the committee  said 90 percent of the cases go to
court diversion,  meaning the defendant received no criminal record
and  no jail time. Sears said he'd like the penalty to  reflect the
reality so that people in all parts of the  state are treated the same.

The committee has heard conflicting arguments about  whether
decriminalization would help or hurt the state.

Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand, a strong  advocate for
decriminalizing small amounts of  marijuana, urged the committee to
divert such cases out  of the criminal justice system. "Are we
comfortable  calling someone a criminal simply because they use a 
small amount of marijuana?" he asked. "I am absolutely  convinced the
majority of Vermonters are not  comfortable with that."

Vermont State Police Maj. Tom L'Esperance countered  that
decriminalizing the drug would remove the  deterrent for some young
people to try it, which he  said would be a mistake. "I want this
decision to be so  difficult it's easy," he said.

Sears said Friday he was unpersuaded that removing the  cases from the
criminal system would be beneficial. If  cases were handled with a
ticket similar to a traffic  violation, defendants would be left with
a permanent  traceable record, even if it wouldn't be a criminal 
record, instead of having that record erased by going  through court

"It might stop somebody from getting a certain job,"  Sears

Sears said he will think about the issue over the  weekend and expects
the committee to take it up again  Thursday.
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