Pubdate: Fri, 08 Feb 2008
Source: Burlington Free Press (VT)
Copyright: 2008 Burlington Free Press
Author: Terri Hallenbeck
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Popular)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


MONTPELIER -- Those who wanted marijuana legalized  didn't get their 
way Thursday. Neither did those who  wanted the Senate Judiciary 
Committee to leave the  marijuana possession laws alone.

The committee voted 4-1 to tweak the penalties for  possession of 
small amounts of marijuana. No longer  would jail time be an option 
for those caught with an  ounce or less. Instead, all such offenders 
would be  eligible for court diversion, a process by which their 
criminal record could be erased.

"I know a lot of people wanted decriminalization. We're  not going to 
do that," said Sen. Richard Sears,  chairman of the Senate Judiciary 
Committee. "This is  better than decriminalization."

Kathleen Daye, a retired Waterbury physician who  followed the 
committee's deliberations, said the bill  wouldn't really change 
anything, but the debate was  worthwhile. "What it will do is keep 
the conversation  going," she said.

The committee had considered proposed legislation to  decriminalize 
possession of 4 ounces or less of  marijuana. Members found the 
amount and the notion of  decriminalization troublesome.

They settled instead on squaring the law with the  reality of how 
such cases are handled. Those caught  with small quantities of 
marijuana typically are  offered court diversion, though the law 
allows for up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

Sears said he wanted all offenders throughout the state  to be 
treated the same. If one is offered court  diversion, they all should 
be, he said.

By decriminalizing possession, offenders would not face  a criminal 
record, but they would have a civil record.  Sears said that could 
put them at risk when applying  for a job or federal housing assistance.

The committee debated how much marijuana qualified as a  "small" 
amount that should not yield jail time. Sears  suggested 2 ounces. 
Sens. John Campbell, D-Windsor, and  Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, 
insisted on 1 ounce. Sen.  Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, cast the lone vote 
against the  bill. She was concerned that changing the law 
would  send the wrong message to youths that marijuana is  acceptable.

Jane Woodruff, executive director of the Department of  State's 
Attorneys and Sheriffs, said the lack of jail  time for first and 
second offense of 1 ounce or less is  not a problem for prosecutors. 
"No one on first-or  second-time marijuana goes to jail unless 
there's  something else going on," she said.

What might be problematic, though, is the notion of 
the  Legislature's ordering state's attorneys to treat cases  a 
certain way, she said. That could be a breach of the  separation of 
governmental branches that she plans to  look into as the bill goes 
through the legislative process.

If the bill passes the full Senate next week, House  Judiciary 
Committee Chairman William Lippert,  D-Hinesburg, said he will take 
it up. He said he's  interested in looking at the resources that go 
into handling small possession cases.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, who sponsored the  original bill, 
said she'd vote for this change. "It's a  step in the right 
direction," she said.

Gov. Jim Douglas questioned whether the change is worth  spending 
time on. "This is not what's most important to  the working families 
of Vermont," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom