Pubdate: Sun, 17 Feb 2008
Source: Burlington Free Press (VT)
Copyright: 2008 Burlington Free Press
Bookmark: (Opinion)
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Vermont senators got it backward when the upper house passed a bill 
that reduces the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana 
and ordered a study to see if the state's drug laws are working. It 
makes little sense to change a law without knowing the effectiveness 
of current laws.

The bill the Senate passed 22-7 Wednesday would send those caught 
with an ounce or less of marijuana to court diversion and offer them 
a chance to keep their records clean.

The Senate bill steps back from the original proposal, which called 
for decriminalizing the possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana. 
Reducing penalties for pot possession was to allow law enforcement to 
focus its resources on more serious crimes and take pressure off our 
clogged court and prison systems.

Numerous police and prosecutors refuted that rationale, testifying 
that small-time possession was not causing problems for the courts or 
prisons. Many such cases are already sent to court diversion at the 
prosecutor's discretion. The bill would remove the prosecutor's 
ability to consider the entire situation involved in the possession 
charge before deciding on a course of action.

As Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie says, the bill proposes to solve a 
nonexistent problem. We do that quite a bit in this state: focus on 
problems that don't exist instead of ones that do.

That should have been enough to table the plan, especially in light 
of the fact that the bill the Senate passed makes clear that 
lawmakers lack sufficient information about the state of our drug 
laws, but there's more.

As we work to eliminate tobacco and reduce the harm of alcohol in our 
lives, you can make a case that reducing penalties for pot possession 
also sends the wrong message, especially to teens who face the 
challenges of the drug culture. Our teens already struggle with legal 
vices. Making marijuana more easily available -- and reducing the 
penalty for possession will do just that -- would only make the 
situation worse.

Debby Haskins, executive director of the Association of Student 
Assistance Professionals of Vermont, said a teen possessing an ounce 
of marijuana -- enough for about 30 joints and worth about $300 -- 
would signal that person is either a dealer or has a drug problem. 
Haskins reports that marijuana use is the No. 1 reason youths under 
18 enter substance-abuse treatment.

A critical element missing here is context. There's something wrong 
with rushing to change the punishment for small-time pot possession 
without looking at the entire drug picture in Vermont, including how 
policy discussions in Montpelier might affect attitudes in our schools.

Another element missing from the discussion is honesty. If the aim of 
the bill is a move toward making marijuana a legal recreational drug, 
then supporters need the guts to say so, so the issue can be debated 
on its real merits. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake