Pubdate: Mon, 18 Feb 2008
Source: Rutland Herald (VT)
Copyright: 2008 Rutland Herald
Author: Daniel Barlow, Vermont Press Bureau
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


MONTPELIER -- The mayors of Barre and Rutland joined Lt. Gov. Brian 
Dubie in opposing a bill that lowers the criminal penalties for 
possessing small amounts of marijuana, warning that it is a step 
backward in the battle against drugs.

Dubie, who presided over the Vermont Senate last week as it easily 
passed a bill removing jail time for possession of an ounce or less 
of marijuana, said Friday 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.  "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 
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 of 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 lawmakers instead look at ways of boosting funding 
for drug task forces, which are facing shortfalls because of a 
decrease in federal funding.  U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is 
expected to announce funding for the task forces today.

Rutland City Mayor Christopher Louras was unable to attend the Friday 
morning Statehouse news conference, but Dubie read a statement from 
the mayor that called the marijuana bill "troubling" in the face of 
the recent drug-related violence in the city.

A shooting over an alleged marijuana deal in Rutland recently 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 news conference marked the first organized attempt to stall 
or block the marijuana bill as it moves to the House Judiciary 
Committee having easily received the OK from the Vermont Senate this week.

"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 Statehouse."

The bill passed by the Senate would allow those caught for the first 
or second time with an ounce or less of marijuana to either accept a 
fine ranging from $500 to $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 legislation when he came out in support of changing the 
state's drug laws last year, say the bill puts into law the existing 
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 performance, 
risky sex and car crashes.

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

"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'?"

"Refer Madness" is 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 said.

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 chairman 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