Pubdate: Sat, 16 Feb 2008
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2008 Times Argus
Author: Daniel Barlow, Vermont Press Bureau
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


MONTPELIER   The mayors of Barre and Rutland joined Lt. Gov. Brian
Dubie on Friday in opposing a bill that lowers the criminal penalties
for small amounts of marijuana, warning that it is a step backwards in
the battle against drug use.

Dubie, who presided over the Vermont Senate this week as it easily
passed a bill removing jail time for possession of one ounce or less
of marijuana, said Friday that Vermont's prosecutors told him they
worry the bill will make their jobs harder.

"We shouldn't be second-guessing our state's attorneys and removing
some of the tools from their toolbox," said Dubie, who added that the
threat of marijuana possession prosecution could be useful for
investigators in situations involving other drugs or abuse. "This
sends a message that we don't think they are doing their job properly."

The mayors of two Vermont cities that have experienced serious drug
addiction problems in recent years joined Dubie in his opposition.

Barre City Mayor Thomas Lauzon, who favors decriminalization of
marijuana, said he opposes the bill because it does not "go far
enough" in stimulating a wide discussion of drug policy and other
related issues and takes away powers from prosecutors.

Lauzon and other opponents said Friday that a provision on the bill
calling on the Vermont Sentencing Commission to review the state's
drug laws is not a wide-enough view of the problem.

Lauzon suggested that lawmakers instead look at ways of boosting the
funding for its drug task forces, which are facing shortfalls due to
drops in federal funding (U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy is expected to
announce funding for the task forces Monday).

"Legalizing marijuana for personal use is still my policy," he said.
"But this bill is not common sense policy."

Rutland City Mayor Chris Louras was unable to attend the Friday
morning Statehouse press conference, but Dubie read a statement from
the mayor that called the marijuana bill "troubling" in face of the
recent drug-related violence. A shooting over an alleged marijuana
deal in that city last week left one man dead.

"I implore to the state Legislature to leave this bill alone," Louras'
statement read. "It is not the right time to take this issue up when
all public officials should be speaking with one voice that any
illegal drug activity, and the criminal violence it brings, must be
met head on with force and unity."

Friday's press conference marked the first organized attempt to stall
or block the marijuana bill as it moves to the House Judiciary
Committee after easily receiving the OK from the Vermont Senate this

"If this doesn't do much, then why are we doing this?" asked Sen.
George Coppenrath, R-Caledonia, who unsuccessfully tried to change
portions of the bill on the Senate floor this week. "Young children
are getting confused from the message coming from the

The bill passed by the Senate would allow those caught for the first
or second time with one ounce or less of marijuana to either accept a
fine ranging from $500-750 or enter the court diversion program.
Penalties, including jail time, would still be in place for larger
amounts of the drug.

Supporters, including Windsor County prosecutor Robert Sand   who
inspired the new legislation when he came out in support of changing
the state's drug laws last year   say the bill puts into law the
current practice of sending most, if not all, first-time marijuana
possession cases to the diversion program.

Meanwhile, Deb Haskins, an alcohol and drug counselor, warned that
marijuana represents a grave threat to Vermont's youth, as she linked
smoking the plant with health problems, poor school work, risky sex
and car crashes.

She added that she recently spoke to a group of eighth-graders, one of
whom thought that lawmakers were legalizing marijuana. Vermont youth
"don't understand what this bill is about," she said, and are getting
a message that pot is not harmful.

"There is not a single counselor in the school system, that supports
this law," said Haskins, who works in the state's school system on
substance abuse issues.

Haskins' statements prompted at least one member of the Vermont press
to ask Friday: Doesn't this rhetoric sound like "Reefer Madness," the
notorious 1936 anti-marijuana film that features young kids who toke
up finding themselves entangled in car accidents, murder, suicide,
rape and madness?

No, responded Haskins, who added that her statements are backed by
studies and health reports.

"Reefer Madness was based on lies and scare tactics," she

Gov. James Douglas has taken a wait-and-see approach to the marijuana
bill, saying this week that it still has many legislative hurdles to
go before it would land on his desk for a signature or veto. He added
that he shares the worry that Vermont's youth might get the wrong
message from the proposed change.

House Speaker Gaye Symington, D-Jericho, said Friday during her weekly
meeting with reporters that she had briefly spoken that morning with
Dubie about his concerns, but hadn't issued any directives to Rep.
William Lippert, D-Hinesburg, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

"I'm not seeing a ton of Vermonters ask me about this bill," Symington
said, who added that it is not one of her priorities for the session.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake