Pubdate: Fri, 18 Jun 2010
Source: Rutland Herald (VT)
Copyright: 2010 Rutland Herald
Author: Peter Hirschfeld, Vermont Press Bureau


A grassroots effort to decriminalize marijuana has the backing of a 
Democratic candidate for governor.

Peter Shumlin, a Windham County senator in the thick of a five-way primary, 
said he'll throw his support behind a burgeoning decriminalization movement 
sparked by a former legislator from Brattleboro.

"Here's the difference between Pete Shumlin and other candidates: I think 
the public is turned off by politicians who don't stand for what they 
believe," Shumlin said this week. "Vermonters won't always agree with me, 
but they know I'll fight for what I believe in."

Darryl Pillsbury, a former four-term independent from Brattleboro who now 
serves as a town selectman, said an effort that sprouted in his hometown is 
making its way upstate.

"We're trying to build a groundswell so we have enough people that can 
support legislators in Montpelier that are willing to do this," Pillsbury 
said. "If we can get the numbers, the support, we can go somewhere with this."

Attempts at marijuana reform aren't new in the Statehouse, where 
decriminalization bills are introduced perennially. But Pillsbury, who said 
he witnessed the fiscal toll of marijuana crimes on the criminal justice 
system during his time on the House Committee on Corrections and 
Institutions, said he plans to galvanize the public support needed to 
actually change the law.

"Spending eight years in Legislature and seeing how many nonviolent 
offenders we're putting in prison at $52,000 per year was one thing that 
really got to me," Pillsbury said.

Shumlin said fiscal pragmatism also grounds his support for decriminalization.

"Vermont's second-fastest area of budget growth is prisons," Shumlin said.

While low-level possession charges rarely result in jail time, Shumlin 
said, marijuana-related sanctions can be more severe for people already on 

"Small marijuana offenses, when you're already on probation, can send you 
to prison," he said. "That doesn't seem to me to be the best use of scarce 
taxpayer dollars."

Pillsbury said his ultimate goal is outright legalization. The financial 
benefits of regulation and taxation on the state's number two cash crop 
(behind hay), according to Pillsbury, could solve next year's projected 
budget deficit virtually overnight.

"Regulate it and tax the hell out of it," Pillsbury said. "I think this is 
the revenue source Vermont is looking for."

Pillsbury said his chief motive though, is ending the unjust 
criminalization of people who enjoy smoking pot.

"Personally I don't call marijuana a drug. I call it an herb," he said. 
"And I'm an herbalist. I think herbs are good things."

Pillsbury, a longtime maintenance worker at a Brattleboro hospital, has 
joined forces with Vidda Crochetta, a fellow Brattleboro resident, to 
organize the effort. Two meetings in Brattleboro, they said, have shown 
popular support beyond their expectations. They plan to convene meetings 
elsewhere in the state this summer and fall.

Shumlin said he plans to stand beside the men at a meeting this summer.

In 2008, the Vermont Senate approved legislation that would have eliminated 
criminal penalties for people caught with up to one ounce of the drug.

The bill never made it through the House. A decriminalization bill 
introduced in the last session never got out of committee.

Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand, a longtime proponent of 
marijuana legalization, said decriminalization is a good step.

"I am convinced that a regulated model would actually reduce use rates, 
dramatically reduce if not completely eliminate law-enforcement involvement 
as it relates to marijuana, and would help take the profit motive out of 
the illegal sale and distribution, which is spawning extraordinary violence 
through the sale of a substance that in and of itself doesn't induce 
violence," Sand said. "The question then is what are the incremental steps 
that get us there? And decriminalization, I think, is a reasonable 
incremental step."

Sand said the costs of marijuana to taxpayers aren't borne out in the 
corrections system specifically but in the criminal justice system as a whole.

Decriminalization would replace criminal sanctions with civil sanctions, so 
that people caught possessing marijuana would be subject to fines, not jail 

"Police officers could respond, but they could respond roadside and issue a 
ticket without the need to arrest, process, run a criminal history, prepare 
a docket for state's attorney review," Sand said. "That would be a 
significant savings in law enforcement time, which would allow police 
officers to then move on to I would suggest are more pressing matters, like 
patrolling for drunk drivers or responding to crimes against persons."

Sand, who has testified before legislative committees on decriminalization 
bills, said he believes the majority of voters already support 

"I have said for years, and I believe it even more strongly now, that 
voters are ahead of politicians on this issue," Sand said. "When I 
testified in the Senate Judiciary Committee, I said, 'are you comfortable 
branding as a criminal someone who chooses to ingest (marijuana)? ... And I 
think phrased that way, the vast majority or people would say no. And if 
you hold that view, then it ought not be a crime."

Sand said members of the Vermont Senate have "stuck out their necks 
politically" on the decriminalization issue   he references Shumlin and 
Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as notable 
decriminalization champions   but said the House has yet to follow suit.

"Even Jim Douglas said he was prepared to talk about penalties, and really 
a decriminalization bill is a discussion about penalties," Sand said. "But 
until House Speaker Shap Smith and (House Judiciary Committee) Chairman 
Bill Lippert express a willingness to discuss the topic, it's going to keep 
getting bottlenecked in the House. I think there may be enough of a 
critical mass right now that they may take it up."

Pillsbury said the effort is still in its beginning stages. He plans to 
meet with more organized marijuana-reform advocates   including the 
nonprofit Vermont Alliance for Intelligent Drug Laws   as the push gains 
steam. Ultimately, he said, the effort is about building up the "critical 
mass" that will be needed to get the bill through the Statehouse.

"There's something to this. You can feel it at these meetings," Pillsbury 
said. "People are ready for change, and I think we can make it happen."
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