Pubdate: Fri, 23 Mar 2012
Source: Burlington Free Press (VT)
Copyright: 2012 Burlington Free Press
Author: Terri Hallenbeck


MONTPELIER - It was 1975, and a teen-aged Joe Benning was playing
guitar with his rock band at the home of a bandmate when police raided
the home. He didn't smoke marijuana, he said, but knew some of his
friends did. Benning and his friends got arrested.

Fast-forward to 2012, and Benning is a 55-year-old defense attorney
and Republican senator from Caledonia County. On the Vermont Senate
floor Friday, he pulled out what was a surprise to some senators - an
amendment that would decriminalize an ounce or less of marijuana,
making possession of it a civil penalty similar to a traffic ticket

People caught in those circumstances should not have to fight a
permanent criminal record as he did, he said. Nor should the state be
spending resources on them, he said.

Most of these offenders are young kids. They end up with a criminal
record and are prevented from having federal college loans," Benning

In Benning's case, the charges were dropped and police in Morristown,
N.J., told him there was no record of his arrest, he said. When he
went to apply to take the bar exam and faced the question of whether
he'd ever been arrested, he did some research and found what he'd been
told wasn't true, he said. Benning said he had to fight to have the
charge expunged.

Just what will happen to Benning's effort to change Vermont's
marijuana penalties remains to be seen. The issue was tabled Friday on
the Senate floor by a 14-13 vote as some members said they were caught
off-guard by Benning's plan. The Senate can resume considering the
bill at any time. The measure, S.138, includes numerous other
unrelated provisions, such as a requirement to catalog search warrants.

How outrageous is it to cast a vote on this without any advance
warning," said. Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, who moved to table the
issue Friday afternoon.

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, said she might be inclined toward
decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, but not without
hearing from experts.

This is a major change in policy in the state of Vermont," Cummings
said. "And this is a major change that hasn't been vetted. I think
it's very poor policy when we make major changes as floor

Senators were split, though, as they faced competing amendments.
Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, presiding over the Senate,
broke a tie vote to put the matter on hold until another day.

Decriminalization - if it were to pass the Senate - is unlikely to
make it through the House. Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, said he
wants more information about its impact in other states and potential
effects here. He said he has told advocates for decriminalization that
if that information is available, the House might consider the measure
in 2013.

Smith said he would support increasing the amount of marijuana needed
to qualify for felony possession, as the underlying Senate bill does.

Other proposals before the Senate seek to lessen penalties but not
decriminalize possession of marijuana.

Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling said he would oppose either
decriminalizing marijuana or reducing the amount that triggers felony

We are not in favor of decriminalization of marijuana in any quantity
or in reducing the felony level," Schirling said. "At the current
felony level, 2 ounces, the street price for some marijuana is
approaching $1,000 before it is cut up and sold off. That level
already draws dealers to Vermont from elsewhere."

Schirling said he would support an alternative penalty akin to a
ticket but only if it were still criminal.

Those who argue marijuana is harmless are mistaken, Schirling

The trade and trafficking in marijuana at all levels brings crime and
violence to each of our communities. Decriminalization will not abate
those problems and may exacerbate them by increasing the frequency and
severity of the drug dealing and related crime on our streets and in
our neighborhoods," Schirling said.

Benning's amendment, also sponsored by Sen. Philip Baruth,
D-Chittenden, was attached to a bill that called for raising the
amount of marijuana that qualifies for a felony and up to five years
in prison from a half-ounce to 2 ounces. Anything less than 2 ounces
would be a misdemeanor subject to up to two years in prison.

Although the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote that bill, the panel
voted for an amendment Friday that would go a little further in
lessening the penalties. That measure called for a fine for possession
of an ounce or less and would allow the defendant to go through court
diversion and have charges expunged.

It is not decriminalization but it is certainly taking jail time off
the table," committee Chairman Richard Sears, D-Bennington said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.