Pubdate: Sat, 23 Feb 2008
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2008 Times Argus
Author: Daniel Barlow
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


MONTPELIER -- Two weeks after lowering criminal  penalties for 
possessing small amounts of marijuana,  the Senate Judiciary 
Committee on Friday approved a  bill that boosts the fines and jail 
times for possessing heroin and cocaine.

The new proposal, which passed the committee in a 5-0  vote, lowers 
the levels of possession for the two  illegal drugs at which 
trafficking charges would kick  in -- thereby boosting the penalties 
a person could  face when arrested.

Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the  committee, 
said the bill is directly targeted at  stopping the inflow of hard 
drugs into Vermont from  larger, out-of-state cities in 
Massachusetts, New York  and Canada.

The violence surrounding drug sales is increasingly  worrying, Sears 
said. He added that there are also  emerging reports of dealers and 
gangs hooking young  women on these drugs and then forcing them into 
prostitution to pay for their habits.

"The violence we've seen, from the problems in Rutland  to the recent 
slashing in Bennington, reinforces the  need for the justice system 
to have more tools," Sears  said. "We are sending a message that we 
don't have this  happening in our communities."Sen. Kevin Mullin, 
R-Rutland, the sponsor of the trafficking bill, said  the amount of 
drugs outlined in the proposal for  trafficking charges would 
indicate someone probably  deals drugs for a living.

"With the amounts that are outlined here, we are still  talking about 
a big business," he explained.

Friday's vote comes just weeks after the committee  voted 4-1 to 
strip away jail time as a penalty for  possession of one ounce or 
less of marijuana, putting a  fine or court diversion on the table 
for the system to  deal with small-time possession cases. That bill 
was approved last week by the full Vermont Senate and has  now been 
sent to the House.

The trafficking bill takes a different stance. For  cocaine, it 
lowers the level of possession from 300  grams to 150 grams for 
trafficking charges to kick in,  which carry penalties of up to 30 
years in prison and  $1 million in fines. Conspiracy charges would 
also kick  in at possession of 400 grams instead of 800 under the  current law.

It contains similar changes for heroin possession too.  If made into 
law, trafficking charges would be allowed  for possession of 3.5 
grams; current law now has the  level twice as much. Conspiracy 
charges would apply for  10 grams, instead of the 20 grams now on the books.

Barbara Cimaglio, the deputy commissioner for Alcohol  and Drug Abuse 
Programs at the Vermont Department of  Health, said the amount of 
drugs contained in the  proposed law ensures that those arrested for 
drug  trafficking would truly be drug dealers, as opposed to  those 
addicted to the drugs.

"The amounts we are talking about are far more than  what a user 
might be carrying," Cimaglio said, adding  that the Legislature is 
also considering reforms for  treatment programs for drug users.

Vermont's law enforcement community appears to strongly  back this 
change. State Police Capt. Thomas Nelson said  the amount of drugs 
outlined in the proposed new  regulations would amount to thousands 
of dollars in  street value.

Possession cases involving large amounts of drugs  usually get sent 
to federal court, where the penalties  are stiffer, Nelson explained. 
But this change would  also allow county prosecutors to apply similar 
pressure  to drug dealers in the local courts.

"Cocaine is the number one drug problem that we are  facing right 
now," said Nelson, who noted that police  have seen a downward trend 
of heroin use and arrests  over the last several years. "This is 
something we can  all get behind."

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee also  expressed serious 
concerns Friday that the Vermont  Prescription Monitoring Program, a 
statewide database  of legal, behind-the-counter purchases, is not up 
and  running yet, despite the fact that the bill creating it  was 
approved almost two years ago.

Vermont police have cited prescription drug abuse as  one of their 
main concerns as fatal overdoses from  pills and other medications 
outpaced other drug-related  deaths in 2007.

"It is very disappointing to see this take so long to  get up and 
running," Mullin said.

Cimaglio agreed Friday that the time it has taken to  organize the 
database has been frustrating. But there  have been logistical 
hurdles in creating a database  that the state has never attempted 
before, she said.

These problems included a lack of good candidates to  hire to oversee 
the program. Cimaglio said there were  no solid candidates out of the 
first round of the  search, essentially putting the program "six 
months  behind right off the bat."

But there has been progress this year, she said.  Contract requests 
to create the database were due last  week and are being reviewed 
now, she explained, and  draft rules -- the policies based on laws 
passed by the  Legislature -- should be ready for review early in  March.

"We've had some real good progress recently," said  Cimaglio, who 
added that the database should be up and  running in the fall.
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