Pubdate: Thu, 4 Mar 2010
Source: Times Argus (Barre, VT)
Copyright: 2010 Times Argus
Author: Susan Allen, Times Argus Staff
Cited: Vermont Alliance for Intelligent Drug Laws
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United States)


MONTPELIER - Buoyed by the overwhelming Town Meeting Day vote in
Montpelier supporting a nonbinding referendum for decriminalizing the
possession of small amounts of marijuana, backers of the Vermont
Alliance for Intelligent Drug Laws on Wednesday urged lawmakers to
listen up.

"This vote demonstrates that support for decriminalizing the
possession of marijuana in Vermont is very strong," said Nancy Lynch,
founder of VALID, in a news release.

"And, frankly, we are not surprised," she added. "It simply doesn't
make sense to arrest people, give them a criminal record for life and
potentially send them to jail for simple marijuana possession. We
don't need to arrest marijuana users when a fine could easily be
instated. We hope our legislators agree and pass the decriminalization
bill in the near future."

The ballot item, which was petitioned to be added to the Montpelier
agenda and appeared as the final item on a list of 16 for voter
consideration, read: "The voters of the City of Montpelier advise the
Vermont Legislature to pass a bill to replace criminal penalties with
a civil fine for adults who possess a small amount of marijuana."

The referendum passed on a vote of 1,530 to 585.

"I wasn't surprised it passed. I thought it would pass with a good
margin," Lynch said Wednesday. "I'm thrilled that it passed with as
high a margin as it did."

"That was a strong vote," agreed Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, a
lead sponsor of a House bill that would make it a civil offense with a
$100 fine for someone 18 or older to possess up to an ounce of
marijuana; possession of any larger amount would remain a criminal
offense under the legislation. The bill was introduced with 19 sponsors.

Zuckerman said the public is ready for this change, which would free
up law enforcement's time to deal with more serious offenses.

"We have bigger fish to fry and higher issues for law enforcement to
work on," Zuckerman said. "If we can get the hearings, we can get the
law. The facts are on our side."

Lynch said she agrees that the public is ready for the change, adding,
"I think there's a real disconnect where the public is on this and
where lawmakers are."

She said the goal is to prompt the House Judiciary Committee and its
chairman, Rep. William Lippert, to at least have a public hearing on
the issue.

"I would like to have an honest debate on the subject," Lynch said.
She noted that 12 states, including Massachusetts, have passed similar
legislation. "The tipping point has come in Vermont, and across the
country people are ready to have a more serious conversation about
what we're doing."

Zuckerman said he doubts the 2010 Legislature will be willing to
tackle the issue in the remaining weeks of the session, particularly
in an election year.

"Politicians tend to get nervous as they get closer and closer to the
election. But I think this issue is a winner, not a loser," he said.

The Senate passed a similar measure three years ago, according to Sen.
Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of that chamber's Judiciary
Committee. Sears said the bill was not acted on by the House, and he
is willing to take the legislation up again if the House passes such a

"I've been hoping for the last three-and-a-half years that they would
pass the thing. At this point they haven't," Sears said Wednesday. "I
felt like I ended up having the Senate stick its neck out, where it
didn't even get to the governor's desk."

VALID has developed a Facebook social networking page with nearly 300
'friends' to spread the word about its work. Lynch used that page to
discuss her thinking following the Tuesday vote in Montpelier.

"Okay Vermonters: Call your lawmakers tomorrow and ask them to take
this measure up NOW," she wrote. "House Judiciary Committee Chair
Bill Lippert needs to hear from you ... He has the power to take up
this issue---ask him to do it--NOW!"

Zuckerman said he thought a strategy meeting was required to decide
how to move forward following the vote.

Although the federal government outlaws possession of marijuana, some
states have decriminalized possession for medical or personal use
(last year a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate to eliminate
federal penalties for possession of small amounts of the drug). In
Vermont in 2004, lawmakers removed the criminal penalties for
marijuana possession and use under controlled circumstances to deal
with a "debilitating medical condition." 
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